New Bainum Brief: Creating Change Through Policy Advocacy

One of the most powerful strategies any foundation can use to achieve its goals for a better society — in areas as diverse as health, energy, arts or education — is to engage in public education and advocacy campaigns on local, state or federal policies. It’s true that private funds, technological innovations and entrepreneurial financing models are valuable ways to enhance service delivery. But they simply aren’t sufficient in addressing complex, systemic problems that perpetually affect a large number of people. Many foundations have funded direct services as well as evaluations to show their effectiveness, hoping the programs would be expanded with public dollars. However, even the best-performing program won’t be scaled up without an explicit advocacy strategy. Fortunately, foundations can help bring thought leaders, community voices and good information into policy debates to achieve better results.

In 2015, the Bainum Family Foundation’s new strategic plan included policy advocacy to call attention to the need for greater public investments in our youngest children to address long-standing racial and economic inequities in Washington, D.C. Over a 30-year career in children and family policy, I’ve worked with many types of foundations to develop and implement their policy advocacy agenda. This experience, and my work with the Bainum Family Foundation in particular, led to the latest Bainum Brief, “Creating Change Through Policy Advocacy: 10 Ways Foundations Can Engage” — which describes why and how foundations across the country are using this important strategy to advance a wide variety of policies.

A 2020 report from the Center for Effective Philanthropy found that nearly three-quarters of foundation CEOs said they have increased policy efforts in the past three years — but the proportion of resources dedicated to that strategy is still small. The philanthropic community has made a good start — and it can and should build on those experiences to do more.

Foundations often cite a few common reasons for not engaging in policy — it’s too controversial, progress is uncertain and/or the legal rules aren’t clear. All three are valid concerns, but there are responses to each, and foundations can find great technical assistance through organizations such as the Alliance for Justice, which offers free advice on the legal rules for funders and grantees. Today, there is tremendous need and potential for policy change. The two upheavals of the racial justice movement and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 are only the most recent illustrations of the enormous inequities that must be addressed through public policies.

Foundations come in all shapes, sizes, interests and risk tolerances. Fortunately, there are many ways to engage in policy advocacy, and funders can find ways to participate that best suit their individual context. Almost any activity needed to advance good policies — research, community mobilization, communications, capacity building — can be done in a way that is not lobbying. Funders can design multi-issue, multisite initiatives, or choose a specific policy focus in a local area. They can be directly involved or use a more hands-off approach. One way to start is to allow existing grantees to use some resources for advocacy, including removing unnecessary lobbying restrictions from legal agreements.

The Brief provides 10 different models, along with many foundation examples. And because designing the right strategy is tricky, the Brief also provides a dozen general guidelines for effective involvement in policy advocacy.

No matter your size, scope or risk tolerance, if you are a funder, let me assure you ― you can engage in policy advocacy strategies. And I encourage you to explore them with the new Bainum Brief here.