The following is a conversation between Susan Wolf Ditkoff, Partner of The Bridgespan Group, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: In a given year when $60 billion is given to foundations, only about $2.5 billion, or just 4%, goes towards advocacy work. But with advocacy campaigns having had a track record of success– from ending Apartheid in South Africa to LGBTQ rights, the question becomes, why isn’t more of this happening? This is among the items examined in a recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled, When Philanthropy Meets Advocacy. It’s a pleasure to have with us its co-author, Susan Wolf Ditkoff, who is a partner at The Bridgespan Group and the co-head of their philanthropy practice. Good evening, Susan, and welcome to the Business of Giving.
Susan: Thank you. It’s great to be here.
Denver: Let’s begin with the question I just posed. Knowing the impact that advocacy campaigns have had in the past, why aren’t more donors doing it?
Susan: Many philanthropists focus on programs and program outcomes. They focus on education, or after-school programs, and they want to see the numbers of people who are affected directly by the money that they give. Politically active philanthropists really remain the exception, not the rule. Many people we meet with want to stay above the political fray, even on issues they care about passionately. They will say things like, “We don’t do advocacy”. Our family members, our board, our staff; they don’t want us to get political. We’re worried about losing our charitable status if we engage.” These are really scripts from almost a bygone era at this point. Those fears are real. But there are really, important ways that philanthropists can engage in advocacy and overcome some of their fears to address the issues that they care most about.
…philanthropy is a fundamentally undemocratic institution, and it always has been; it’s a public expression of private values.
Denver: Let me ask you this, Susan. Does the public want to see this? Do they want the charitable sector to play a larger role with the federal government to solve societal problems? Or, do they prefer the separation?
Susan: I think it’s a mix. In 2016, Independent Sector did a poll that found that nearly 80% of voters support a bigger role for the charitable sector working with the federal government to produce better solutions to problems. It’s also true that those voters, 70% of them, are more likely to back a presidential candidate who supports the charitable sector’s involvement in government and policy-making. At the same time, it is true that philanthropy is a fundamentally undemocratic institution, and it always has been; it’s a public expression of private values. So, I think the public looks at some of the philanthropic successes like LGBTQ rights, like public libraries… and they’re excited about those, but there also is a wariness of the role of public power and public impact of private values.
Denver: In your article, When Philanthropy Meets Advocacy, you state that if philanthropists are going to activate advocacy efforts, they’re going to have to think through five strategic questions. Let’s run through those starting with the most basic and arguably the most important, and that is, do you know the rules of engagement? What are some of those rules, Susan?
Susan: One question that we get from a lot of philanthropists is, “What am I even allowed to do?” There is so much fear and lack of knowledge about what is possible that people want to stay very far away from crossing legal lines and putting their 501(c)(3) or philanthropic status into jeopardy. For example, there are many things you can’t do with a 501(c)(3) designation. You can’t donate money to a political candidate in an active political campaign without a bunch of restrictions, or to a ballot initiative without restrictions and disclosure and that sort of thing. But there are so many important pieces of advocacy that are beyond those specific ballot initiatives or candidates. For example, conducting research to influence policy debates is completely in bounds. Mobilizing constituencies to advocate for things–that is in bounds. Pursuing changes thorough legal strategies, through age elections or other parts of the code that are so arcane that you really need legal advice to pursue them but they are all in bounds. I think when people look to see what kinds of things they can do, they are quite surprised, and there’s a lot more flexibility that people can exercise. The other thing that foundations can do quite powerfully, and philanthropists can do, is provide general operating support to organizations and that is another way, which isn’t program-specific or campaign-specific, to engage.
Denver: I would agree. So many organizations are not even close to the line although they think they might be. The second thing is who is the opposition? And there are times when a group can’t imagine that there could be any opposition to what they want to do but often, they’re wrong. You site a wonderful example with Autism Speaks. What happened in their case?
Susan: It’s a great question. My co-author, Patrick Guerriero of Civitas, gives a metaphor of a set of well-intentioned, good-hearted people, smart, thoughtful, who are on a football field and they can’t for whatever reason, get past the 20-yard line. They’re not scoring touchdowns. They can’t get into the red zone. They don’t know why. There’s just this invisible force that keeps them out. It’s a powerful metaphor because a lot folks, myself included, before I started deeply engaging in this; they think they have a selfless, public-spirited cause, and that’s fantastic. Why wouldn’t anyone support, for example, autistic children who have autism and families? It turns out that for pretty much every cause, there is a counter-cause; there are forces that are keeping that reality in place. There are intentional forces, incentives, organizations, money that is on the other side of what might seem like an obvious or selfless issue. Autism Speaks is a very interesting example because they had been working in North Carolina to increase the coverage that health plans were giving to a particularly effective treatment for autism called ABA, which is applied behavioral analysis. What’s interesting is that there is research that shows that it (the issue) should have broad bipartisan support because not only did it help these kids but it actually had a variety of financial benefits as well. They were really facing a lot of resistance, and they weren’t quite sure why. It turned out that the people who were resisting the legislation essentially they had been battling with insurance companies all over the country but they had not completely understood what was happening there. So, they actually dug in to publicly available lobbying data, disclosure reports, that sort of thing, and found that a lot of money was being spent on lobbying the state government against coverage for these services. What’s interesting is that Liz Feld, who is their executive– was the president at that time– she took a step back and said, “Wait a minute, these people that we’ve been battling with, how do we really change the conversation?”
What they did was they had a public campaign, not only a state-wide poll that said more than 80% of voters were actually supportive of the insurance reform, but they also had a messaging campaign highlighting the fiscally conservative reason for the republican-controlled legislature to support the bill. There were other things. There was data. There were advertisements—it was both head and heart. It was really a complicated set of negotiation but they made a tremendous amount of progress by really thinking through who was the opposition, who were the natural supporters, and how do they need to level the playing field in a different way to achieve their goals.
For sure there are gaps that philanthropy can fill. But it’s also true that if you go to a white space, by definition, what you’re not doing is supporting things to have some momentum. There’s got to be a Yogi Berra thing about this. If you’re in white space, you’re on your own.
It’s looking at the opportunities that are out there and fitting your goals, your winnable milestones, your public good into a broader landscape and have a more potent and powerful and broad base of support.
Denver: It’s always out there whether you see it or not. That’s a great recommendation. The third question you ask is, “How do you convert a strategy to an opportunity map? Walk us through that one, Susan.
Susan: It’s a really interesting question of where are there places where there might be natural allies or natural processes that are already happening that you can plug into. Here’s what I mean by that. A number of philanthropists want to go for white space. They want to go where others aren’t. They want their money to make a difference, and they’d like to begin getting some momentum around an issue they care about. That is important. For sure there are gaps that philanthropy can fill. But it is also true that if you go to white space, by definition, what you’re not doing is supporting things that have some momentum. There’s got to be a Yogi Berra thing about this. If you’re in white space, you’re on your own. I do think that there is a question of pulling back and saying, “Where are the opportunities? Here is my long-term goal or even my medium-term goal. Here is the winnable milestone that I’m looking to see.” In the Trust for Public Land’s case, they were saying, we want a park within a 10 minute walk of every person in every city, every town across America. As they began to think about their campaign, part of their question was what is it going to take to do that? It turns out that there were hundred million Americans, once they did their mapping, that lack this access, which is so important. It’s important psychologically. It’s important for the environment. It’s important for children and older adults who need places to convene. There’s a people aspect to it not just an environmental aspect. It’s a broad set of benefits that you get, that they were identifying. At the same time they asked the question,” How can we do this? There are 100 million people. How do we think about this?” What their opportunity map revealed was that there was really an opportunity to engage with the nation’s mayors through, in this instance, US Conference of Mayors. By advocating, actually first by identifying and working with a core group of mayors to answer the question of what would this look like in your city over the next decade, they really realized that they could build momentum and convert even more mayors in new cities. When they launched in October 2017, they and their partner organizations had a park advocacy campaign that had already enlisted bipartisan mayors, more than 125 mayors–134 at the end of the day–in cities from red, red states and cities–Cody Wyoming to blue states like Vermont. It really allowed them to look across that landscape and say, “How can we create common win, a common good, and move that forward?” It’s looking at the opportunities that are out there and fitting your goals, your winnable milestones, and your public good into a broader landscape and have a more potent, powerful, and broad base of support.
I will say that philanthropists are sometimes their own worst enemy in this one because they want to fund the program. They want to fund a child and an after-school program. They want to save a tree. They want to save whatever it is, a whale. What they don’t necessarily do is think to invest in poling or messaging because it has such a bad reputation. Obviously, you’re trying to influence me and skew things. There’s just this propaganda element to it.
Denver: Those spatial maps can be great. You get to see things you never had seen before and a lot of Eureka moments do come out of that. The fourth question you posed is, “Are your messages aimed at winning new allies or just making your base feel good?” Here, the language you use makes a big difference. Speak to this, Susan, and how groups can find that right language.
Susan: A lot of us understand intuitively, as people, that language matters a lot. Names matter and words matter. So, when we think about things like the words “climate change” that already turns off a whole group of the electorate. It’s very energizing to the base of people who are focused on those issues, but climate change is not a phrase that resonates across the spectrum. There are phrases that resonate with conservatives, with Republicans; things like freedom, individual rights, liberty; job creation, competition, and free markets. There’s a whole set of language. Then there’s a commensurate language on the left. Part of the question is –and we did not take a position on if you should be a left-leaning advocate or you should be a right-leaning advocate– we just wanted to step back and say what’s happening. What’s working? What is being effective, so that whether you’re on the left or the right, you can read this article and say, this is either what my friends are doing or what my opposition is doing. Let’s actually understand it a little bit more. What’s interesting is that the Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions asked the question of how they can work with Republican policy makers on environmental issues. So that can be a very politically divisive process, or it can be one where there’s common ground to be found. One of the questions that they were asking was around messages, environmental messages that are deep in the Republican and conservative movement. Things like being responsible stewards of God’s creation. Things like creating new jobs and a stronger economy based on clean and renewable energy, things like global competitiveness and that sort of thing. These are really important core values to conservatives. I think the question was, are there ways to find that middle ground, find new messaging frameworks by deeply listening to others on the other side of the aisle. They had a pretty successful set of outcomes by doing it that way. I will say that philanthropists are sometimes their own worst enemy on this one because they want to fund programs. They want to fund a child, and an after-school program. They want to save a tree. They want to save whatever it is– a whale. What they don’t necessarily do is think to invest in polling or messaging because it has such a bad reputation. Obviously, you’re trying to influence me and skew things. There’s just this propaganda element to it. Of course, that is a reality. I don’t what to be Pollyanna. But this messaging and polling are about what values are you speaking to on the other side when it’s at its best, so that you can create that common ground and find those common paths forward. Again in an increasingly partisan society, what does it look like to invest in that way? It’s a powerful question to ask.
Denver: Absolutely. One of the recommendations that I did like was bringing in polling firms from the other side to give you that different perspective.
The fifth and final question is, “Are you using new technologies to educate and advocate?” Tell us about that and what are some of those new technologies?
Susan: This is a fun one because from when we wrote the article, to now even, the technology to listen and advocate has changed. The social listening technologies really do link to the polling conversation and really understanding and tracking conversations around different phrases and different words. There are apps that you can use for very little money that incredible grassroots organizations are paying attention to. There’s hashtag movements, there’s tagging, word clouds and what happens is you can listen to how your issue is playing out in social media and find places to find more advocates, to see what’s resonating, and where you can share values. Again, for every one of these, you can use this for good or for evil. Our goal is that more people will be inspired to use all this work for good. But for sure we know that people are using these technologies in nefarious ways also. So, I think part of the question is about what role philanthropists can play when there are these less savory ways that messaging is trying to be controlled. What are ways to elevate that dialogue put a spotlight on it, and engage people in a different way to get it back on track?
…as we just looked out in landscape right now, the tectonic plates are shifting. There are new alliances being formed, new old things that are falling into crevices, lots of disruption in the political field, in the business sphere…. That’s what’s exciting because not all of the trenches have been dug. With this disruption comes opportunity.
Denver: You also note in your article that advocacy campaigns, much like everything else, they evolve and develop, and there are different stages where philanthropists can play a role. What are some of those different stages?
Susan: It’s an interesting question. Philanthropists sometimes want to jump into the fray, and we’ve seen a few very high-profile philanthropists willing to be on the front pages,–the Koch brothers on the right, George Soros on the left. Folks like that have really taken a stand, and they’re happy and willing to be out. I would say, overwhelmingly, the philanthropists that we talked to are not interested in that sort if spotlight and that sort of role. But there are interesting, unlikely pairs and opportunities that can be created mostly because — again, as we look out in landscape right now, the tectonic plates are shifting. There are new alliances being formed, new old things that are falling into crevices, lots of disruption in the political field, in the business sphere. Just think about the #MeToo Movement. Think about some of the primaries that we’re seeing. There are so many places where the rules are being disrupted. In that situation, where can organizations that care deeply about engaging with communities– grass roots organizations and unions are using this very powerfully– create new alliances and new approaches? For example, donors can ask at the most basic level, “Where is our core issue? Even if we don’t want to engage on it, we at least want to make sure that we know who’s on the other side, that we know where the opportunities are, even if we never fund the thing.” But it might open up opportunities that people are interested in. So, I think about some of the marijuana legislation, some of the non-violent offender legislation, some of the legislation around the opioid crisis where there are really interesting cross-party lines; LGBT is another one where there are cross-party coalitions that can be formed. That’s what’s exciting because not all of the trenches have been dug. With this disruption comes opportunity. Even at the most basic level, understanding the landscape that you are operating in–that your issue is operating in–the political map, the advocacy map, the public engagement map, political will, language, opposition; all of these things that we talked about in the article–you’ve got to make sure you understand it. Then, there’s a question of how you want to engage as a philanthropist, either publicly or privately. There are other ways to engage that are not public to do that. We’ve seen some of that both for good and for not so good. But that inaction–the failure to act, the failure to understand it–is in and of itself an action. I think people are really starting to see that.
Denver: Finally, Susan. In picking up a little bit on what you just said, with the stakes being so high around so many issues at the moment but the temperature is pretty high as well. Do you anticipate an uptake in activity or maybe even a surge of philanthropists becoming involved in advocacy campaigns?
Susan: I do. I start with the premise that philanthropy has a positive and important role to play in society but it is not an absolute good. About 10 years ago, we wrote a piece in the Harvard Business Review called Galvanizing Philanthropy where we talked about some of those hazards. Unlike businesses, there are no customers for philanthropy to be accountable to. Unlike government, there are no voters. Unlike the private sector, there are no investors, no shareholders. Legally, by design, philanthropists have wide latitude to engage in this way. I think though that that is not unfettered good. Those risks are real. At the same time, this latitude gives donors incredible freedom to experiment in ways that the government can’t experiment. Think about these public parks, public art, public health clinics. We wrote a piece last year as well for the Harvard Business Review called Audacious Philanthropy, which was 15 success stories for how philanthropists can change the world: car seats and all these other things. What it requires though is that it can’t be done the way it’s always been done. I think people are looking at the landscape right now and saying we need to change. Philanthropy at its worse is top down; it is tone deaf, it is personally driven, it’s unresponsive to the community–all those things are true. But at its best, philanthropists can work with the communities they want to benefit. They can flip that narrative and partner differently, help communities and help different constituencies achieve their full potential in a way that government alone can’t do and the corporate world alone can’t do. So I think the real question is in this moment, what is the highest and best use of the role that flexible philanthropy can play, mindful of all the pitfalls and the complexities in order to rebuild our democracy. I will end with a line from Darren Walker who is the incredible thoughtful visionary head of the Ford Foundation. His words from probably a year ago resonate with me which is, “At the core of our democracy is hope, and our greatest threat is not terrorism or an outside pandemic. It’s hopelessness, because when society becomes hopeless, people do desperate things.” So, how can philanthropy at its best help build a strong civil society, and how can philanthropy’s role in advocacy with government be used for that good? I do think that we all have a role in that conversation.
Denver: A good question to leave us with.
Susan Wolf Ditkoff, a partner at the Bridgespan Group and co-head of their philanthropy practice, I want to thank you for being here this evening. The article again, is When Philanthropy Meets Advocacy. You can find it on the Stanford Social Innovation Review website, and there’s also a link to it on Bridgespan.org. It was a pleasure to have you on the show, Susan.
Susan: Thank you so much. This was a lot of fun.
Denver: I’ll be back with more of the Business of Giving right after this.
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