Philanthropy and strategic funding of advocacy efforts are topics gaining traction among changemakers. I had the pleasure of discussing these issues with William Foster and Deborah Bielak, distinguished experts in this field. 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. Bielak, also from Bridgespan, co-authored Using All the Tools in the Toolkit: Funding Advocacy for Social Change. Our conversation highlighted the importance of incremental efforts and the diverse strategies philanthropists can employ to drive significant policy and political changes.

The Tortoise and Policy Change
When considering significant legislative milestones like the Inflation Reduction Act or the Affordable Care Act, we often see major victories that capture headlines. These “hares” captivate the public’s imagination, but as William Foster explained, the “tortoise” plays a critical role in these scenarios. He elaborated:

“Many things, particularly when they pass in Congress, seem like this sort of monumental moment, right? But when we look at what it takes to create broad national support, there’s actually many years of work typically behind each of them.”

Foster’s research examined various issues, from marriage equality to social security, revealing that achieving national adoption typically involves 25 years of work and numerous smaller policy wins along the way. This incremental approach is crucial in paving the way for significant changes.

Overcoming Hesitancy in Funding Advocacy
Despite the critical impact of policy work in driving social change, many funders remain hesitant to invest in this area. Deborah Bielak provided insights into the barriers that keep them on the sidelines:

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.

Bielak emphasized the need for funders to understand the high ROI of advocacy efforts. The complexity and technicalities involved can be daunting, but the potential for significant impact is substantial.

The Power of Strategic Alliances
One of the key strategies for achieving policy wins is the formation of strategic alliances. Foster highlighted this point with an example from sentencing reform:

“For a policy win, focusing in like a laser on the specific change you want is the key to success. One of the patterns that we see is in almost all of these cases, there are strange bedfellows. Successful policy wins bring together unusual alliances generally with a new narrative that allows change in action to happen.

These alliances often involve groups with differing agendas uniting around a common goal. This collaborative approach can be highly effective in achieving policy changes that might otherwise seem unattainable.

Tools and Strategies for Effective Advocacy
Philanthropists have a range of tools at their disposal for supporting advocacy efforts. Bielak outlined some of these strategies, emphasizing the importance of using the right tools at the right times:

“We think about the portfolio for your giving towards impact and using all those tools at the right times and places. 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.

The strategic use of various funding vehicles, such as (c)(3)s for public education and lobbying or 527s for electoral work, can maximize the effectiveness of advocacy efforts. Bielak encouraged funders to think of their advocacy investments as a diversified portfolio, aligning their strategies with their specific goals.

The Path Forward
As our conversation drew to a close, Foster and Bielak shared their final thoughts on driving systemic social change through philanthropy and advocacy. Foster’s key lesson was the importance of persistence and

“It’s possible. Don’t be a pessimist. There are really significant policy changes that happen that affect people’s lives. That’s done in a context of broad sort of malaise and pessimism.

Bielak emphasized the importance of getting involved and leveraging collective action: “Get in the game. Surround yourself with like-minded people and get started.”

By embracing these insights and strategies, philanthropists can play a pivotal role in driving meaningful social change. The strategic funding of advocacy efforts, though complex, holds the potential to achieve significant and lasting impact.

To listen to the full interview or read the transcript, just click here.

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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