The following is a conversation between William Foster, the co-author of Betting on the Tortoise: Policy Incrementalism and How Philanthropy’s Support Can Turn Small Sustained Steps into Big Impact, Deborah Bielak, co-author of Using All the Tools in the Toolkit: Funding Advocacy for Social Change, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

Denver: A topic that’s gaining traction among philanthropists and changemakers alike is the strategic funding of advocacy efforts, and I’m excited to have with us today two distinguished experts to discuss it. 

William Foster is a managing partner at the Bridgespan Group and co-author of Betting on the Tortoise: Policy Incrementalism and How Philanthropy’s Support Can Turn Small Sustained Steps into Big Impact. His research provides a deep dive into how major policy victories are often not the result of sudden leaps, but rather the culmination of strategic incremental efforts backed by steadfast philanthropic support. 

And joining him is Deborah Bielak, a partner in the Bridgespan San Francisco office. She is the co-author of Using All the Tools in the Toolkit: Funding Advocacy for Social Change. It highlights the diverse strategies philanthropists can employ to drive policy and political changes that resonate with their objectives.

Welcome to The Business of Giving, William and Debby.

William Foster, the co-author of Betting on the Tortoise: Policy Incrementalism and How Philanthropy’s Support Can Turn Small Sustained Steps into Big Impact, Deborah Beilak, co-author of Using All the Tools in the Toolkit: Funding Advocacy for Social Change

William: Great to be here, Denver.

Denver: Let me start with you, William. You know, when we consider significant legislative milestones like the Inflation Reduction Act and its environmental impact, or the Affordable Care Act and how that’s dramatically reduced the number of uninsured Americans, we see major victories. Dare I say, we see hares that capture the public’s imagination, as well as headlines. So, William, in the context of Betting on the Tortoise, elaborate on the role that the tortoise has played in these scenarios.

William: Denver, as the quote you started with from President Obama shared, many things, particularly when they pass in Congress, say, seem like this sort of monumental moment, right? And a lot of the way news and conversation in our country flow focuses on the national level, but when we look at what it takes to create broad national support and some sort of a moment where either the Supreme Court ruling, or there’s a piece of legislation passed, it turns out that there’s actually many years of work typically behind each of them, right? 

And so one of the case studies we looked at here was Marriage Equality: Gay Marriage, and that is among the sort of faster tortoises, if you will, that have run the race. But it took 22 years of very specific, goal-oriented work… marriage being a goal within a constellation of civil rights issues for the LGBTQ community, and it was already the law of the land in 37 states before the Supreme Court ruled in favor of gay marriage.

And so we did a study where we were like, “How typical is this?” And we looked at 10 major issues, everything from Abortion Rights, to Abortion Restriction, to Social Security, to Clean Air and Water Acts, to Liberalization of Gun Laws,…so conservative, progressive, sort of across the ideological spectrum. And what we found was typically, there was actually 25 years of work and 40 sort of smaller policy wins on the way to something becoming nationally adopted. 

And just when you think about most issues, whether it’s big high-profile issues that are discussed widely like abortion, or whether it’s much more specific but yet very important issues like caps on taxation increases, these things flow either community by community– so cities, states, et cetera, or they flow by progressive steps substantively. Think about marijuana legalization, going from medical marijuana to decriminalization to legalization, right? And those small wins, small from a national perspective although potentially meaningful in a community, almost always precede a big national win.

Denver: Interesting. So, “Things don’t happen in Washington, things come to Washington” would be another way of looking at it.

William: Yeah. And by the way, the other countries work in different ways, but in the United States, generally, Washington doesn’t act legislatively or judicially on something until it’s actually pretty widespread already.

Denver: Got it. Got it. Debby, you know, considering the critical impact of policy work and driving social change, why do many funders appear hesitant to invest in this area? What are their main concerns and barriers that keep them on the sidelines?

Edit gap of 5 seconds  at 4:26

Debby: Thanks for the question, Denver, and I want to contextualize this because these are companion pieces, and if we can think about William and Marc and Eric’s work is really saying, “What does it take to get to national level scale?” Ours is responding to a question that so many funders have had, which is “How should I do advocacy? When and why should I do it?” and thinking about whether it is a national ambition or something that’s in their backyard.

And we heard a set of things. So, one of them is really work that William and his team addressed, which is, “Is it going to add up to anything? I see so much work, and does it add up to change over time?” And they, I think, addressed that really beautifully.

There’s a few other things. Sometimes, they don’t think of it, and it’s just not something that’s top of mind for them. Oftentimes, it’s like the rules seem complex. They are. It’s a pretty technical thing to do, to give to different types of vehicles, to be able to invest in the full range of advocacy tools in the toolkit. Sometimes, it’s about what they think of as ROI. In terms of the way the tax policy works is you get a tax refund if you get a specific type of vehicle or not. Or, they just don’t like the idea of money in politics. They have concerns about transparency, accountability, dark money. 

So, those are some of the reasons and what really spurred us to write the article, to be able to address them.

“We often see that some of the anchor or backbone organizations that shepherd these policy wins together are often purpose-built like they’re formed for that particular goal, versus being the groups that have pursued broader agendas for many decades.”

Denver: William, let me ask you a question on strategy. Generally speaking, is it more effective to focus, like a laser narrowly on a key battlefield or two, or spread resources across multiple areas for potential wins?

William: What our research shows us and what our experience with clients shows us is that for a policy win, focusing in like a laser on the specific change you want is the key to success. And one of the patterns that we see is in almost all of these cases, there are strange bedfellows, that not all of the kind of groups that you think would naturally travel together end up working together on an issue. 

So, think about sentencing reform, sort of reforms to mandatory prison terms and all that. That brought together groups that are traditionally thought of as conservative religious folks with more progressive groups focused very much on  de-incarceration. It brought fiscal conservatives together, and that’s because they were focused on a specific goal. Those groups wouldn’t necessarily have the same reason for engaging in it, or might not agree with one another on other topics. But successful policy wins bring together unusual alliances generally with a new narrative that allows change in action to happen.

And in fact, it’s one of the reasons why we often see that some of the anchor or backbone organizations that shepherd these policy wins together are often purpose-built, like they’re formed for that particular goal, versus being the groups that have pursued broader agendas for many decades.

“In issues that don’t move, there are often opposing forces that are sort of fixed in their positions, and rarely on issues that are stuck and fixed does one side simply kind of bludgeon the other into submission.”

Denver: You also emphasized, William, the importance of narrative change in paving the way for policy reform, and we know how hard that can be. How can advocates effectively craft and disseminate narratives that resonate with the public and help shape perceptions around a complex issue?

William: Well, so first of all, Denver, it’s hard, right? Like, if it were easy, people would do it all the time. But, if you think about some of the issues we look at, in our example like with gay marriage, there was a real shift from a rights-based argument: Everyone should have the same rights to marriage to: A love is love argument. How can you affect that.. and that was much more effective. 

But if you think about sentencing reform, there was a shift from sort of a fixed binary of “safety versus compassion” to a “smart on safety” argument.

And so, there are skilled people who think hard about finding them. They also have to be authentic and real. They can’t just be fictional. 

But one of the things that we see as the key to it is that in issues that don’t move, there are often opposing forces that are sort of fixed in their positions, and rarely on issues that are stuck and fixed does one side simply kind of bludgeon the other into submission.

Generally, there’s something that comes orthogonally, that comes from a different direction, that opens up new ways that allows people to align differently around an issue. And typically, that’s what can open the door, because the truth is that things that become nationwide. that become the law of the land in multiple states and jurisdictions and eventually become the law of the land nationally, are typically things that end up having kind of 70 percent-ish support, 60-, 70-ish. It doesn’t need 90, but it also like… 51% is not durable.

Denver: No, that’s right. Yeah, yeah. You know, I love what you have to say about reframing. I think it’s the most underappreciated aspect of changing a narrative. I sometimes even say to myself, “I fail 95% of the time,” and I get a little despondent, and then I say, “Hey, I only need 5% success.” You know what I mean?

William: Yeah. Yeah.

Denver: That’s it, and it just changes your whole mindset.

Well, Debby, you know, you mentioned several ways funders can support advocacy efforts such as funding a 501(c)(3) organization, which I think, you know, most people are aware of. What are some of the other tools in that toolkit of yours, and what advantages do they offer?

Debby: Great. So, I want to build on the last conversation because when you say narrative, I think of some of the tactics of things like message testing that pollsters do, and the tools I think of, Denver, in terms of the high-level education lobbying and political campaigning. 

And so the real tools are you’re funding research, analysis, public education on issues related to an organization’s mission, or you’re doing lobbying, whether that is lobbying for specific legislation on the Hill, or wherever your capital is, or mobilizing the public to contact their legislators about big issues, or then political campaign activities that include supporting or opposing candidates for public office, or supporting political parties as they’re aligned with your issue.

And so when we think about it, those are really the tools that funders invest in, and then the way that the world is set up in the U.S., there’s flavors of capital which, you know, there’s ways to give are vehicles that are structured as (c)(3) organizations, (c)(4) organizations, or 527s.

We go into some of the details in the paper, and I encourage folks if they want more, you can contact legal experts, but in simple terms, these vehicles have different permissions in terms of which of these activities they can use.

And so (c)(3)s really robustly do more of the work and the education. They though can actually do much more than people understand in terms of, for example, lobbying. Give an example of a way in which a set of funders invested in a small organization, the California Cradle-to-Career Initiative, that then was able with that lobbying work in the (c)(3) to tip over and get public funding of $15 million for the issue they cared about Cradle-to-Career. So, that (c)(3)s,…(c)(4)s, if you want to do full-throated lobbying and recognize we really need to work on this with this issue, that is something that’s permissible for (c)(4)s to do.

If you want to do electoral work, the space to do that really is 527s. I’m saying this generally, there’s nuances, so there’s a lot of asterisks in ours. But really, when we step back, there’s something in a way in which our interviewee said funders should think about kind of the activities and the investment vehicles as a portfolio, the way that you think about a portfolio for your financial investments… thinking about a portfolio for your giving towards impact and using all those tools at the right times and places.

Denver: Debby, you finding philanthropists are getting over their skittishness about those (4)s and those 527s, “Where is the law? Where is the line? Is this dark money?” What do you say to them when they raise those concerns?

Debby: You know, there’s a few things. So, as I spoke to there are a  few different concerns people have, and one of them really is, “I’m worried my money isn’t going far enough.” And the thing I’d say is, “Gosh, you know, advocacy is one of the highest ROI things we can do.”

We spoke with the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy and looked at their research, which shows that the ROI of a dollar invested in policy and civic engagement is 115%, and so this concern about “I’m not gonna get a tax break the way that I do with the (c)(3)”  can be put to rest.

Further, if you want your dollars to go far, just give whatever money would be remaining after the tax. You could give 70% of what you give, those dollars would probably go further.

But getting to the specific question you asked in terms of dark money, what I’d say is like, it’s worth pausing, Denver, and deliberating. It’s something for every funder to consider in terms of their comfort level.

But what we say in response and what people are really grappling with and moving into do this giving is, William mentioned the opposition before, regardless of how you feel about money and politics, the rules are what they are now. And so whatever you feel, people who care about the issue in a different way, your opposition may be well aware of what they’re able to do and using these tools really effectively. So, if you’re not getting into the game inherently, you’re not likely to win.

Denver: Oh, no. You don’t want to be sitting on the sidelines when the opposition is in the middle of the field, that is for sure.

William, we know that funders are drawn to high-profile nationwide campaigns, but let’s get back to the tortoise. How can philanthropists be convinced to support the often quieter sustained work of incremental policy change?

William: Well, I think, Denver, the main barrier is connecting with opportunities to do it because in a lot of ways, the sort of incremental work that takes place in a state or the incremental work that is the first step in what one might hope are multiple steps on a policy issue is, in a lot of ways, more appealing to donors, right? 

Because one, it seems a little bit less hot, right? Like a little bit less politically fraught and two, it seems more tangible, right?

One of the big fears is on some big national issue, are you just sort of spitting in the wind? Are you just like some small force against all of these larger array of forces? And by narrowing to an incremental goal, by narrowing to a certain area, you can actually develop strategy; you can develop measurable milestones, things that make it seem less amorphous. And so, in a lot of ways, it removes those barriers but the groups pursuing this work and the donors pursuing this work should feel more confident reaching out to their peers to join in.

Denver: That was a wonderful reframing of my question. I liked it a lot. Most of the movements you did analyze, William, you saw the emergence of highly effective intermediary organizations. You sort of alluded to that before, and they’re the ones who are driving the national strategy. Speak about their role and maybe give us an example of where they’ve made a difference.

William: Yeah. And sometimes, these are organizations that are from kind of grassroots, the nonprofit leaders, and sometimes, they’re incubated by a funder themself. 

But, you know, Freedom to Marry on the Marriage-Equality Movement was a group backed by founding donors. Others came in as well that was singularly focused on this goal of legalizing gay marriage. There’s a lot documented on it. Our co-author, Marc Solomon, was the national campaign director for Freedom to Marry, and they had a strategy where they said there are 50 states; each has a legislative and judicial pathway that creates a hundred potential wins. 

At the time they were founded, it was crazy, unrealistic to think about legalizing gay marriage in almost all of those areas of endeavor, but they said if we can find the two to five most promising, we can get the ball rolling. By the time those two to five came together, there were another, you know, five to ten that were realistic, and that’s how they built it. It’s a great example.

On the conservative side of the equation, one of the most sort of talked about influential policy groups and controversial ones is the NRA. 

And the NRA, was originally much more of a kind of rifle, re-camp association, training group and had transformation in the ’70s to being focused on access to and broadening the legal access to firearms and became a very focused highly powerful political group, and it was almost like a re-founding of that entity.

Denver: Yeah. Yeah. Debby, you know, your article suggests that funders should consider opportunities to impact at various levels of government. You got states, you got locals, you got others. How do you get that mixed together? What do you advise organizations to determine the appropriate regional focus for their advocacy efforts? 

Debby: That is one of a set of tactics that we recommend, Denver, that include what William already mentioned, including partnering on issues versus party lines, engaging strange bedfellows, really funding at the regional level to accomplish your goals, thinking beyond the norm, and investing in lower profile but the highly impactful elected offices, or giving early and staying the course, but I’ll come to this specific one of: what’s the right regional level?

You know, they’re meaningful and incremental wins that can happen at different levels that have direct impact on the issue at hand and that could also lead to broader scale change. So, I think part of this is really just asking what’s the change? All of this really in philanthropy, in general, is personal. What’s the specific change that you seek? And it could be that it’s bounded to a specific region or place. 

If it’s a broader national strategy, then we’re just getting into pure play advocacy strategy, which is things of understanding where there’s like juice or momentum, where there’s the ability to have impact. Thinking about the portfolio nationally is: What are the types of examples of jurisdictions or states that we want to see this change in that give legislators at the federal level a sense of : This is something that we’ll have broad support for?

 It sometimes may also depend on appreciating kind of: Who are the specific decision makers on a committee and what needs to happen. Do you need to actually have change happen in their state so that their constituents and representatives are supporting it… so I’m kind of going into advocacy strategy, but I wanted to elevate up and say we were really excited in our conversations to hear pretty consistent advice of those handful of approaches that I mentioned in terms of ways in which your dollars can go further. I think sometimes people think the way to go in is at the national level, but as William’s research illustrates, that’s often not the way in. It can be building up. It mostly is building up over time, but sometimes the bounds of the work are constructed. You don’t need to actually go to the federal level. It depends what your objectives are.

Denver: Debby, let me ask you about evaluating advocacy efforts because I think we’ve made the point that this is a long slog. Tortoises take a long time to go from point A to point B, and I wonder how you can measure the outcomes of the success to keep people energized and keep momentum. What do you try to do to create those milestones and keep everybody on board and say, “Yeah, we’re getting there. It’s long, it’s going to take a while, but we’re getting there.”

Debby: Denver, I love this question and William may have perspectives because his work was focused a little bit more on looking at incremental wins, but I get actually a little testy when people say you can’t measure advocacy. That’s just not …..

Denver: But I didn’t ask that.

Debby: No, no, you didn’t. This is tied to a concern that funders have that this work won’t be measurable, that I won’t be able to see progress over time.

In any of the activities that I named in terms of if it’s raising awareness and education, then you can understand, then you can test kind of what is a constituent’s understanding of an issue. If it is something about kind of getting mobilization and understanding if your constituents actually care about an issue and transform from understanding to taking action, you can look at the actions that they take, whether that is the size of people, if it happens to be kind of public presentation. We give an example of Olay’s work alongside others in New Mexico, and every year, they had The 1000 Kid March, which has a certain number of children and childcare educators and others that kind of come and show up.

So, there is kind of people’s perception, media mentions, a number of things in terms of coalitions, naming and kind of texturing what it is of who’s coming together and what’s the statement that they’re making. Everything from that to, and… all of these can have polling… to then incremental wins as William speaks about, which are specific measures, whether that is an individual ballot measure, whether that is electing the officials who do support an issue. And so, there’s a range of different measures that move to things that include some softer measures, but incredibly important to get a sense of if you’re moving towards a win.

““Get in the game.” As I said before, there’s not a chance of winning if you’re not in it and that you can do so in a way that works for you.”

Denver: So interesting. Let me give you each a closing question, and I’ll stick with you, Debby, to start. Given the complex landscape of policy reform and advocacy, what one piece of advice would you offer to new philanthropists who are eager to make a significant impact, but may feel a little overwhelmed by the challenges ahead?

Debby: So, I think I would say: “Get in the game.” As I said before, there’s not a chance of winning if you’re not in it and that you can do so in a way that works for you.

So, we highlight a range of ways… that can be saying, “You can start with (c)(3) funding and just fund the full extent of work that’s able to be done, which includes, again, that kind of public awareness and engagement as well as lobbying. 

If you need to, you can create the structure for giving. There’s ways in which, for example, private foundations, if they’re structured to (c)(3)s, can’t do the full giving, you can create a structure like NLC, or if you’re an individual donor, you can just write a check directly. 

If you don’t have a sense of the range of organizations that you want to work with, there’s a number of intermediaries so you can fund through donor-advised funds or an intermediary funding organization, or you can give directly to (c)(4)s or 527s. 

You can start with those that you know… many (c)(3) organizations have sister (c)(4) and 527 organizations, and that’s something we heard a lot is the way in which organizations were able to grow the work that they thought was highest impact was with their donors who knew them well, who realized this is the way in which you can advance the issues that we care so much about.

And then finally, just being in community. That’s something that we hear across our work in terms of the joy and the comradery that people get from being in collaboration with fellow funders, as well as engaging experts who share your goals to be able to leverage collective action to make smarter investments.

Denver: Yeah. Surround yourself with like-minded people and get started. And William, could you share a key lesson or insight from your work that has fundamentally shaped your approach to driving systemic social change through philanthropy and through advocacy?

William: Yeah. The lesson or insight that I guess I would take most is that it’s possible. Don’t be a pessimist,.. that at local level, state level, and even federal level, there are really significant policy changes that happen that affect people’s lives. And that’s done in a context of kind of broad sort of malaise and pessimism. 

And part of why that’s the case is that most of the national conversation is politics, not policy, and the things that politicians elevate in their communications and to their constituency are generally the things that bring the sharpest difference between them and their opponents. And they promote perspectives that most resonate with their base that are therefore by definition, the things that are least likely to happen, that in a political world that compromise is just part of the equation. And so the things that do pass, even Denver, some of the ones that you mentioned at the top of this podcast, like the sort of Infrastructure Act, the National Inflation Reduction Act, I don’t think people talk about those very much because they’re not highlighting the biggest differences, but they’re actually things that will profoundly reshape climate, will profoundly reshape infrastructure; and there are all kinds of issues from residential zoning reform, which is super wonky, but affects poverty rates and powerful ways that are at play as we speak, but just not being talked about on the campaign trail.

Denver: Yeah, actually, it’s just not good TV unless we can have a fight. The articles again are Betting on the Tortoise: Policy Incrementalism and How Philanthropy’s Support Can Turn Small Sustained Steps into Big Impact. I had to work, by the way, William, on “incrementalism” a few times before I could say it. And Using All the Tools in the Toolkit: Funding Advocacy for Social Change. Now, Debby, is there a place to go where listeners can get access to the full article?

Debby: So for both of these, I think the best place to go, Denver, is just Bridgespan’s website. We published on our website, so look forward to hearing any thoughts from listeners who read them.

Denver: Fantastic. Well, William and Debby, it was a great pleasure to have you on the program. Thanks so much for being here today.

William: Thanks, Denver. 

Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Trusted Advisor and Executive Coach to Nonprofit Leaders. His Book, The Business of Giving: New Best Practices for Nonprofit and Philanthropic Leaders in an Uncertain World, is available now on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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