Policy Advocacy: Best Weapon in a Foundation’s Arsenal — or a Threat to Democracy?

Phil Buchanan

Nowhere have concerns about foundations’ policy influence been greater in recent years than in the area of education. While critics of “education reform” like Diane Ravitch have for years warned of the outsized influence of what she terms the “billionaire boys club,” the critiques have now spread. Common Core standards, for example, which were pushed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and others and rapidly adopted by states, are now under fire from conservatives and liberals alike.

In her new book, Policy Patrons: Philanthropy, Education Reform, and the Politics of Influence, Megan Tompkins-Stange explores the role of education funders in policy, contrasting what she sees as the more top-down approaches of the Gates and Broad foundations with the more participatory approaches of the Ford and W.K. Kellogg foundations. “Given the power that foundations have to shape policies through not only their financial capital, but also their social and political legitimacy, questions of democratic governance come into sharp relief,” she writes.

Tompkins-Stange contrasts the two pairs of foundations on four dimensions:

  • how they interact with grantees;
  • how they select partners;
  • how they frame problems; and
  • how they evaluate results.

Interestingly, as she acknowledges, the two pairs are at least in some respects coming closer to each other as they each recognize the shortcomings of their chosen approach. On the one hand, she argues, the foundations that have been more “grassroots”-focused are realizing the importance of goal clarity and strategic alignment. On the other hand, there is a growing realization, including inside the Gates Foundation (based on her interviews with staff there), that being too top-down, too expert-driven, too technical, and too focused on the quantifiable can actually undermine efficacy.

This has been publicly acknowledged, at least to some degree, by the Gates Foundation’s leaders, too. Discussing the Foundation’s push for Common Core standards, Gates CEO Sue Desmond-Hellman said in her 2016 annual letter, “Unfortunately, our foundation underestimated the level of resources and support required for our public education systems to be well-equipped to implement the standards. We missed an early opportunity to sufficiently engage educators — particularly teachers — but also parents and communities so that the benefits of the standards could take flight from the beginning.”

[An aside: I would add students themselves to her list of those who should have been engaged. That can happen through direct discussion and through confidential, comparative surveys such as CEP’s YouthTruth, which was created initially by CEP and the Gates Foundation, and which has brought the perspectives of a half million students to school and district leaders — yet has had a hard time gaining the attention of education funders.]

Or, as Melinda Gates told the Washington Post, “Community buy-in is huge,” adding, “It means that in some ways, you have to go more slowly.”

The statements of Desmond-Hellman and Gates are striking — and relevant for all foundations — on four counts.

  • First, that even Gates, with all its expertise and resources, underestimated what it takes to influence a complex system like U.S. public education.
  • Second, that they acknowledge so directly the degree to which their work — even though they were successful in gaining adoption of Common Core standards — was less effective as a result of a failure to engage those on the front lines.
  • Third, that they were willing to be so open about the shortcomings.
  • Fourth, that what looks like a policy “win” at first glance may prove to be less clear-cut over time.

My view is that the most effective foundations go beyond just gaining “buy-in” and open themselves up to the possibility that others are in a better position to identify solutions. As Patti Patrizi and I noted in an op-ed in the most recent issue of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, “Grantees and others close to the ground will have better insights about what is likely to work than a foundation program officer.” Reflecting on her career as a foundation executive, my CEP Board colleague Crystal Hayling put it like this: “I learned, in those early years, that folks did not take kindly to the notion that their communities or their lives were problems to be solved.”

As I have said hundreds of times, in business you want your strategy to be yours alone. But for foundations, if your strategy is yours alone, you will ultimately fail.  This, I think, is what we are seeing play out in the public backlashes to some of the reforms pushed by funders in the education arena.

So where does this all leave us? Should foundations step out of the policy arena? Former Ford Foundation executive Michael Edwards is among the more thoughtful critics of big philanthropy, and his argument is worth considering. “More private money flooding into the policy process will be met by even more from protagonists with different views, relegating the public to an even more marginal position,” he writes. “The funding of social movements could be disastrous, removing them from their base and making them dependent on the whims of donors.”

But, while I respect Edwards’ perspective, I ultimately disagree with it. The best philanthropy elevates, rather than diminishes, the voices of the disempowered.  And it is a historical fact that social movements have depended on crucial foundation support.

I am glad that, during the civil rights movement, for example, foundations like the Taconic Foundation, the Field Foundation, the Stern Family Fund, Ford Foundation, and Carnegie Corporation “threw themselves wholeheartedly into the national campaign to end racial segregation,” as historian Olivier Zunz put it in his book, Philanthropy in America: A History, rather than sitting on the sidelines for fear of having an undue or undemocratic influence. At the risk of betraying my biases, I am also glad for the examples I cited in my last post: the Affordable Care Act, marriage equality, and criminal justice reform.

Influence on policy may well be the most powerful tool a foundation can employ. Yet it is also extremely difficult and fraught and has lasting repercussions — for good or ill. So foundations should not undertake it lightly. If they do seek to influence policy, they should do it with humility about the limits of the influence that any single institution, or even a group of institutions, should attempt to wield in a democracy.

Zunz has argued that foundations’ participation in the policy process over the past century has “enlarged democracy.” Today, especially in a post-Citizens United context in which countless dollars are spent by corporations and individuals to influence policy quite directly, we need foundations — with a wide range of perspectives — as participants in the policy arena.

Private foundations cannot, of course, lobby (beyond self-defense) or involve themselves directly in political campaigns. But they can employ a variety of tactics to encourage policy change, and they can do it in a way that elevates rather than crowds out the voices of ordinary citizens. 

The fact that some policy change efforts supported by foundations have failed to sufficiently engage the perspectives of those who foundations seek to help should not lead foundations to abandon policy work. It should lead them instead to work harder to do it better, and in a way that benefits from the wisdom and experience of those who will be affected. They are, after all, who the work is for — and what it is all about.

Phil Buchanan is president of CEP. Follow him on Twitter at @PhilCEP.

This post was edited from an earlier version to clarify a sentence about foundations and lobbying.

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