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Center for Effective Philanthropy report on policy-oriented foundations underscores importance of tightening thinking behind strategies and improving formulation and development of tactics—together, and for longer than usually first expected.

The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s (CEP’s) Policy Influence: What Foundations are Doing and Why, released earlier this month, reports on philanthropies that engage in efforts to influence public policy—including asking why they pursue such work and examining the various approaches they take in doing so. CEP surveyed 214 foundation and 419 nonprofit leaders as part of the project, and it interviewed chief executive officers and staff at 43 foundations.

Foundations are uniquely positioned to leverage change that can benefit America’s political, social, economic, or cultural life, of course. CEP’s Policy Influence serves as a good, up-to-date reference and “how-to” guide about how to best try using, and avoid pitfalls while trying to use, that positioning.

“While some policy efforts enjoy widespread or bipartisan support, many are seen as more divisive,” according to the report.

Progressives lament the policy influence of conservative foundations on issues like the school voucher and charter movement.Indeed, progressive funders and nonprofits have sought to learn from what they perceive as the significant success of conservative funders. Meanwhile, conservatives lament the policy influence of progressive funders, pointing to the passage of the Affordable Care Act and successful advancement of marriage equality.

(Footnotes omitted.)

The Giving Review co-editors have some experience in at least attempting to do conservative policy-oriented grantmaking well, while at Milwaukee’s conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, in some cases for decades. Policy Influence touches on many of the challenges faced by those trying to do this, whether on the right or the left. One in particular may be worth noting.

“The most frequent challenge leaders face is building board support for policy efforts,” the report notes. “Only 45 percent of leaders say their board is completely supportive of the foundation’s efforts to influence public policy.”

While working for so many years at Bradley on parental choice in K-12 education and work-based welfare reform, there was certainly occasional skeptical questioning or outright opposition from board members. This is a board member’s job, of course, and it was done well in both of those contexts—serving to tighten the internal thinking behind and case for certain overall strategies, as well as then improving the formulation and development of specific tactics.

Naturally enough, “[o]ne frequent suggestion foundation leaders make to those who are considering getting into policy work is to build board buy-in,” Policy Influence reports.

Building support at the board level to initiate funding for policy work is difficult enough at the beginning, but maintaining it during the sure-to-come ups and downs that follow is even tougher. In a time where short-term evaluations and return-on-the-dollar “investment” psychology rule, pleas for persistence over a long haul are not easy.  

As CEP’s Policy Influence survey helps identify, a foundation board, CEO, and staff together have to recognize any window of opportunity for change. Without that understanding, and along with a keen sense of timing, the critical importance of the “time value of money” will be lost. Hesitation—a surrender to the conservative temptation to play defense, rather than to smartly “skate to the puck” and attack on offense—can close the window, not easily reopened.

Inasmuch as policy-oriented foundations—no matter what their origins, mission, and aspirations—want to make a difference, fighting the good fight, staying the course, believing in the idea and those who partner in realizing it make all the difference. If success is not achieved in the next round of quarterly results, which it rarely is, someone somewhere who is inspired by the witness of such commitment will open the window of opportunity and make the change.

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