David Biemesderfer, president & CEO of the Forum, was recently on the More Than Money Philanthropy Panel at the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading's Funder Huddle in Denver on June 14. This post originally appeared on The Patterson Foundation's blog.
It’s no big secret that philanthropy has a history of not being fully engaged in policy and advocacy work. Thankfully that’s starting to change. In a recent survey of foundations conducted by the Center for Effective Philanthropy, for example, one of the top ways that funders said they were changing their practice in 2017 was to engage in more policy and advocacy at the state and local level. But we have a long way to go before funders have fully leveraged the assets they can bring as strong policy advocates for the issues they invest in and care about, such as ensuring that all kids are reading at grade level by the end of third grade.
Why do funders need to be more engaged in policy and advocacy? The biggest reason is that policy and advocacy can bring about long-term systemic change for any issue you care about, including improvements in grade-level reading. In fact, policy and advocacy can bring about some of the most sweeping changes to both help or hurt your cause. You can be investing for many years to improve a specific societal problem, and a single policy change can catapult improvements further or can stop them in their tracks.
Philanthropy offers a unique voice in the policy and advocacy space unlike any other group. I wrote last year about my work in Florida to provide a strong voice for philanthropy around issues like education and health care, beyond just philanthropy-specific policies. While walking the halls of Florida’s Capitol in Tallahassee, the leader of a prominent nonprofit health care service and advocacy organization stopped me. She expressed her deep gratitude that Florida’s philanthropic sector had recently become more active and visible in health policy. She acknowledged that philanthropy’s voice was a unique, independent, and a powerful one, in part because it does not, in her words, have a “dog in the fight” and was not seeking government dollars (as were her organization and many of her colleagues). “Please keep it up,” she implored me. “Your voice is so important.”
A reminder here that I am not referring to lobbying, I am referring to advocacy and public policy engagement. There are a lot of ways for a funder to be involved that are perfectly legal and can leverage your financial investments many times over. You can convene advocacy groups, host public forums, write opinion pieces, educate legislators, and much more. You can do as much of this as you want.
I should stress that although I’m writing about a funder’s own involvement in advocacy and public policy engagement, a funder’s financial support for advocacy can also make a huge difference in advancing your cause. A study by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy found that every dollar invested by a funder in policy and civic engagement provided a return of $115 in community benefit. That’s an impressive investment.
That same study found that broad coalitions—like the community coalitions involved in the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading—can achieve the most significant changes in policy. It’s perfectly legal and is one of the most powerful things you can do as a funder to achieve the goals of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, as well advancing other issues that your organization cares about.
The theme of the recent Campaign for Grade-Level Reading Huddle was “Lift. Learn. Lead.” Involvement in policy and advocacy is an important way for a funder to lead. With everything going on in our country’s political environment right now, including what seems to be a growing partisanship and polarization, some people might be tempted to shy away from policy and advocacy work. Just the opposite is needed. Funders working in the Grade-Level Reading Communities Network across the country are doing good work to make lives better for countless people in your communities. You can provide a vital leadership voice, and an important moral compass, that is needed in the policy space now more than ever before.
President & CEO, Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers
Follow me @dbiemesderfer