No Silver Bullets

March 19, 2014

At The River Gathering, presented by Philanthropy Northwest and GRANTMAKERS of Oregon and Southwest Washington, we will devote a session to deepening our understanding of how philanthropy can support civic engagement and a democratic society. A related national discussion was held during a recent Alliance for Justice and National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy webinar, Breakthrough Philanthropy: Providing Leadership to Move Policy, where participants offered recommendations to tackle the big question facing the philanthropic and nonprofit: how to make systemic, lasting change when federal policymaking in Washington is dysfunctional?

Webinar participants Nan Aron and Abby Levine, Alliance for Justice; Aaron Dorfman, National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy and Larry Kramer, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, offered several arguments for why and how philanthropy should continue to engage in policy and advocacy work even when political gridlock at the national level stymies efforts.

Recognizing that philanthropic resources are too limited to make significant change on the large scale problems, like climate change, the Hewlett Foundation is funding policy work as one way to make real impact.  As a foundation CEO new to his position, Kramer offered these reflections:

  • Foundations of any size can dedicate resources to advocacy, and the amount does not need to be large.
  • Advocacy tools and practices have a shelf-life and should be evaluated. For example, funding of research to inform policy discussions was viewed as a safe and effective practice for foundations in the past. However, there is evidence now that solely offering neutral research is insufficient for policy decisions today.  Foundations must support advocates who can engage communities and convince government to act.
  • Be patient with broad advocacy strategies since there are no silver bullets that immediately create change.
  • Accept that the success rate for policy efforts may not be high, and be willing to share what was learned.
  • Strive to be open and transparent with all stakeholders – nonprofit grantees, foundation peers and policy makers — for the purposes of better collaboration, shared learning and finding potential partners.
  • The philanthropic world is non-competitive but collaboration among foundations is incredibly difficult. Whether due to the structural slow pace of foundations, excessive process or dispersed decision-making, collaboration is more challenging than expected.
  • Every foundation should also have an interest in addressing governmental polarization and gridlock as part of a broader effort to loosen up the advocacy system itself.

Kramer shares more in his article “Tackling Political Polarization Through Philanthropy” in the December 2013 edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Aaron Dorfman offered these recommendations based upon research conducted by National Center for Responsive Philanthropy:

What contributes most to successful impact of advocacy efforts?

  • Leadership and mobilization of affected communities since expert-driven advocacy is not enough
  • Coalitions that unite diverse constituencies and tactical strengths
  • Applying a racial equity lens that addresses disparities in policies and programs
  • Using courts to achieve policy change
  • Support of non-partisan voter engagement

What are some ways funders can support advocacy work?

  • Provide general operating support & multi-year support. This type of funding offers flexibility and encourages a long-term perspective in quickly changing landscapes.
  • Minimize application and reporting burdens.
  • Engage grantees as true partners, especially in developing strategy. Better results when funders and grantees build trust and work together.
  • Work with grantees to develop appropriate and helpful evaluation tools.
  • Offer capacity building support that is culturally appropriate and specific to the needs identified by the grantee.