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Philanthropy + Community: The Evolution of United Philanthropy Forum’s Policy & Advocacy Strategy


Note: As he approaches his retirement, Forum President & CEO David Biemesderfer will be sharing some parting reflections about the Forum’s work in a series of blog posts. This is the second post in the series.

United Philanthropy Forum has a long history of engaging philanthropy in public policy and advocacy work, going back to its founding in 1998. We’ve always focused on helping the broader sector, including Forum members, build their capacity to engage in policy and advocacy in their own organizations and with their foundation members. This work is made possible by our member network of nearly 100 regional and national associations and networks, or PSOs (philanthropy-serving organizations), that lead, strengthen, inform, connect and mobilize philanthropy. 

The Forum has always had a focus on advocating for policies and legislation that can help strengthen and grow philanthropy of all kinds in our country, primarily through fair tax policy and regulation, and that focus will continue. However, our public policy efforts have evolved over the past eight years to also incorporate a focus on advocating for policies that will lead to more healthy, vibrant and equitable communities across the country. With this approach, the Forum’s focus has expanded into new areas of policy and advocacy work beyond philanthropic sector protection issues, such as the universal charitable deduction, lending our voice to issues that impact the communities that philanthropy cares about so much. 

The Forum is cognizant of the legislative history of America and how public policy has negatively impacted Black, Indigenous and communities of color, both intentionally and unintentionally. These policies, over time, have only exacerbated disparities that have lasted generations. We acknowledge that efforts made by philanthropy to improve our communities in just about any area of social well-being may not be enough and can be undone – sometimes in devastating ways — due to exclusionary public policy. So we believe that philanthropy needs to have a voice, to the extent possible, on public policy solutions that address systemic inequities and, as the Forum’s vision states, catalyze a just and equitable society where all can participate and prosper. 

The Forum’s evolving policy focus on philanthropy and community started back in 2016 when we embarked on a four-year initiative to work with our network to engage philanthropy in ensuring a fair and accurate 2020 Census count. Although the 2020 Census was outside of the philanthropy-specific policy and advocacy work that the Forum had done until this point, we viewed the Census as an important issue for philanthropy.  A fair and accurate Census count is critical to ensuring the equitable distribution of numerous types of government resources to historically marginalized communities – communities that are the focus of much philanthropic investment. 

In addition to educating Forum members on the importance of the 2020 Census and working to increase philanthropic and government funding support for the 2020 census, a key goal for the Forum’s 2020 Census project was to mobilize funders to advocate for policy improvements for the 2020 Census. This advocacy work yielded numerous Census policy wins at the state and federal level that were the result of the advocacy leadership of Forum members. For example, more than a dozen state legislatures committed more than $150 million in new Census resources, and philanthropy added its voice to a successful effort to exclude the untested citizenship question from the 2020 Census – including through an amicus curiae brief submitted to the Supreme Court that was signed by the Forum, eight Forum members and 21 foundations. 

Philanthropy was not alone in the policy and advocacy efforts for the 2020 Census, but philanthropy’s voice on the issue was vital and certainly got noticed by policymakers. We believe that it is important for philanthropy to lend its powerful voice to important policy issues that can strengthen the communities they support with their philanthropic dollars, and to demonstrate to policymakers that we have broader interests and perspectives beyond philanthropy-focused tax policy. 

The impact made by the Forum’s 2020 Census initiative led to a continued evolution of our policy and advocacy work to focus on both philanthropy and community, as exemplified by new public policy principles that we developed three years ago and revised nearly a year ago. The Forum’s current six public policy principles include philanthropy-focused principles, such as to “Support Fair Tax Policy & Regulation” and “Enhance Charitable Giving.” But there are also community-focused policy principles. For example, the Forum’s 2020 Census work led to us getting involved in broader democracy-focused policy work, as it did for a number of Forum members, and to develop a principle to “Defend & Strengthen Democracy.” Additionally, the Forum’s strategic priority to advance racial equity in philanthropy, which started in 2016, led to the development of a public policy principle to “Champion Racial Equity & Justice.” 

Guided by our principles, each year the Forum identifies a set of policy issues to focus our energies on at the federal level. This year those issues have included both philanthropy sector issues (universal charitable deduction, Nonprofit SEAT Act, and nonprofit sector regulation) and community issues (voting rights, maternal health, the Farm Bill, and Census reform). The Forum believes that the sector issues and community issues are not mutually inclusive. In fact, they are deeply interconnected. 

Of course, there is a wide array of possible policy issues to focus on, and we can’t focus on all of them. Most of the time our role is to lift up and amplify the policy and advocacy work of our regional and national PSO members. When working to identify a small list of community-focused policy issues for us to prioritize in our work, our public policy team and Public Policy Committee look at a number of factors: current legislative efforts; urgency of the matter; impact of the issue on Black, Indigenous and People of Color communities; and the opportunity to raise visibility on an issue in our sector. With the Farm Bill, for example, Congress has to pass this legislation every five years so there’s urgency to the issue; the structuring of the bill’s SNAP benefits has significant implications for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities; and it’s an issue that has not typically gotten widespread visibility in the philanthropic sector. 

We also look for community issues that have cross-cutting interest and relevance across our network, with regional PSOs as well as national PSOs focused on specific population groups or specific funding issues. Ideally, one or more members of the network will be playing a leadership role on this issue and can be a valued partner with the Forum to catalyze interest and engagement on the issue more broadly in our network. 

We bring a racial equity lens to all aspects of our public policy and advocacy work. When determining policy issues to address, for example, we ask such questions as: What is the history of this policy in terms of harming communities of color and causing or exacerbating racial and ethnic inequities? How would this policy reduce those harms or inequities? Would there be any unintended consequences of this policy that would cause additional harms or inequities to communities of color or other historically marginalized communities? 

With the Farm Bill, for example, Forum member Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems Funders (SAFSF) has been a key partner, and has developed 2023 Farm Bill Principles acknowledging that the Farm Bills, as well as the implementation of food and agriculture policies more broadly, have long perpetuated the systematic oppression of people of color and disinvestment in rural communities. With our Census work, Forum member Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation (FCCP), which leads the Funders Census Initiative, has been a long-term partner. These national PSO partners bring deep content expertise and connections, and the Forum brings expertise in how to broaden and amplify the issue in our network of nearly 100 regional and national PSOs, which represent more than 7,000 funders across the country. 

The cornerstone of the Forum’s public policy and advocacy work is the breadth and depth of our network. Our regional PSO members, who represent about half of our network, touch every state in our country and are deeply rooted in community. Our national PSO members, who comprise the other half of our network, bring a deep connection and understanding to just about every key funding issue, population group and philanthropic practice in our sector. Furthermore, PSOs are uniquely positioned to lead, connect and mobilize on this work. They can bring a powerful collective voice to the philanthropy networks that they represent, can activate their own networks when needed, and as 501c3 nonprofits they can engage in a much broader range of advocacy and lobbying activities than private foundations. The beauty and power of this network was part of the vision that led us to transform our organization to become United Philanthropy Forum in 2017. 

I am grateful to the Forum’s public policy team — Matthew L. Evans, the Forum’s Senior Director of Public Policy, and Nate Borek, the Forum’s Senior Public Policy Associate — who lead and execute the Forum’s public policy and advocacy strategies, and to Tirrea Billings, the Forum’s Senior Communications Manager, who brings her communications expertise to help advance our policy and advocacy work. I am also deeply appreciative to the Forum’s Public Policy Committee for its strategic guidance, currently led by co-chairs Regina Bell of the Council of Michigan Foundations and Eddie Torres of Grantmakers in the Arts. 

The Forum remains deeply committed to leveraging the voice and power of philanthropy to promote a strong sector and advocate for healthy, vibrant and equitable communities. I look forward to seeing what the organization and the network will do in the future. 

David Biemesderfer 
President & CEO United Philanthropy Forum

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