Top 10 Tips for Philanthropists Seeking to Engage in the Policy Space

[Editor’s Note: It is GrantCraft’s goal to share funder wisdom across many strategies and issues. The following post’s author has experience with funding advocacy, but we are offering their views anonymously because the topic can unleash scrutiny – some productive, some not – which the author felt could distract from the intent of the article.]

Funders have an opportunity to move issues in the policy space. This opportunity can be an important complement to providing grant funding to organizations in specific issue areas, as policy dialogue and change can be a critical part of creating issue-area movement. This top 10 list isn’t meant to provide legal advice; check with your legal counsel before embarking on any of these strategies.

1. Engage in direct advocacy with members of Congress, a National Assembly, or Parliament. 

Double-check with your lawyers, of course, but don’t be shy about conducting direct advocacy around issues that are the focus of your philanthropic giving. A great (free, online) resource about engaging in advocacy work is the Alliance for Justice’s Bolder Advocacy.

2. Launch a public-private partnership.

The corporate sector has been entering into public-private partnerships (PPPs) with the U.S. government for decades, but they are still nascent in the philanthropic sector. For example, in 2014, the Peace and Security Funders Group helped its Africa-focused funders launch a $7 million PPP with USAID focused on peacebuilding in the Central African Republic. Many Executive Branch agencies are now open to these partnerships, as they leverage each sector’s comparative advantages around shared values and goals.

3. Share information with colleagues.

Through formal or informal mechanisms, funders and policymakers can share information and collaborate (as appropriate) on issues of shared interest. Information sharing reduces duplication of effort and allows partners to align their strengths to work on different pieces of the same puzzle.

4. Conduct joint webinars with policymakers.

When hosting a webinar, invite non-philanthropic speakers from the Executive Branch and/or the national legislature to gain diverse perspectives on the same issue. Conversely, policymakers will have an opportunity to learn about your perspective on an issue they are working on through official channels.

5. Write op-eds.

Policymakers are constantly reading (and reacting to) both national and – moreover – local press to see what their constituents (voters) are saying on various topics. Writing an op-ed will allow you to illuminate your priority issue areas for policymakers. If you need help drafting an op-ed, there are myriad resources available, including The OpEd Project and ReThink Media.

6. Host a dinner salon (or a series).

You can use your convening power – as someone who is putting their money where their mouth is – to bring together your grantees (key experts) with journalists and policymakers to discuss or share information around an issue. These can be off-the-record conversations that introduce policymakers to expert opinions and resources, help identify gaps in understanding (and how to fill them), and build relationships and trust amongst key players.

7. Host a public briefing (ideally in the capital of your country).

It’s tough for Members of Congress in Washington, DC, and their senior staff to get off Capitol Hill to learn about an issue during an educational briefing somewhere in downtown DC (or for parliamentarians or legislators globally to travel from their seat of government). So, bring the briefing to them. In the U.S., your Member of Congress can book a room for you in either a Senate or House office building (which is free), and you can pay for lunch or coffee/pastries. This is an opportunity to showcase your issue and the work of your grantees. It’s our experience that you’ll get more traction if you do two briefings: one Senate- and one House-side (rather than doing one briefing in the Capitol Visitors Center). For international funders, consider hosting briefings wherever parliamentarians or legislators coalesce (e.g., Brussels for European Union policymakers, Canberra for Australian parliamentarians, etc.).

8. Build relationships with the media.

Journalists, executive producers, and editorial boards are often overwhelmed with keeping up with the 24-hour news cycle. Make their jobs easier by offering to be a liaison between them and the issue-experts you fund. You could also offer yourself as an expert on the philanthropic angle of an issue (which is not well understood). If you’re brave, you could even offer to appear on television. Building relationships is critical; take time to do this so that you become a trusted source of information.

9. Invite policymakers to speak to your peers, grantees, and other partners.

Policymakers relish the opportunity to speak to constituents about the issues under their purview. In the U.S., Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, for example, has made it a priority to connect with Americans on issues before the Department of Defense. While having a Cabinet-level official speak to your community is great, they are tough to pin down. The same goes for members of Congress, and you may actually have franker conversations with their senior staff. Undersecretaries, Assistant Secretaries, Deputy Assistant Secretaries, Special or Senior Advisors, Legislative Directors, and other senior policy staff in the Executive Branch and on the Hill are all incredible “gets” who will allow you to better understand the policy challenges and opportunities around your issues.

10. Fund fellowships.

Capacity in both the Executive Branch and in Congress is at an all-time low in the U.S. Staff struggle to stay above water with immediate assignments or burning issues, and in doing so find little time to think long-term and strategically. Because of this, grantees that are rightfully looking over the horizon will have a tough time convincing government staff to push these longer-term issues internally. Establishing and/or endowing a fellowship program through a nonprofit is one way to help increase this necessary capacity (and you can focus the fellow/fellowship on your interest areas). A quick Google search yields results for hundreds of both congressional and Executive Branch fellowships ranging across many sectors and issues; unfortunately, there is a dearth of foreign policy-focused fellowships. In addition, philanthropists may be able to make scholarships available for professional development training for federal or congressional employees (by, for example, paying for a certain number of workshop slots through a vetted university, think tank, or nonprofit offering the training).

Funders have the opportunity and – some would argue, the responsibility — to engage in informing policymaking. Many groups and special interests – from local botanist clubs to the national gun lobby – are helping to shape policy by reaching out to their elected representatives and sharing what they know about their issues. Why not funders? Funders can help raise awareness (with both policymakers, the media, and the general public), and help facilitate connections for their grantees and policymakers.