Time for Funders to Take a Stand?

Private and community foundations, as well as individual philanthropists, should be involved at the system and advocacy level of issues.

imageIn the philanthropic sector, there are always a few hot topics boiling at any point in time, such as the debate on operating support that we had here a few weeks ago (which, by the way, was very valuable to me). One topic that is beginning to simmer is the degree to which funders—private and community foundations, as well as individual philanthropists—should be involved at the system and advocacy level of issues.

Should they be involved at all? And if so, how?

Obviously I have a bias, which is Yes and Very strategically.

From a legal and technical standpoint, funders can be a lot more involved at the policy level than most think they can. But that’s largely not the gating factor. Some people feel that funders should avoid the muck of politics and public sector engagement—and instead stick to investing in direct service work, and continue in their unbiased role in the community.

Others would say that funders have a unique and important voice, which they need to use more forcefully. Funding direct service work is fine, but you aren’t really moving the dial if you don’t address the system-level, root causes of social issues.

In a recent editorial on community foundations in The San Francisco Chronicle, Lucy Bernholz, president of the philanthropy consulting firm Blueprint Research & Design, Inc., argues that foundations need to take a stand:

“Politicians have election cycles, companies have bottom lines. Foundations are here for good. Use the platform of long-range thinking and permanent commitment to take stands on important community issues.”

I agree with her points about the role a community foundation can play, but by becoming more directly involved in advocacy work, do funders risk losing their role as the “honest brokers,” or their ability to act as broad conveners?

Please share your thoughts below.

Image source: stock.xchng

imagePaul Shoemaker is executive director of Social Venture Partners Seattle and founding president of SVP International. Previous to these positions, he acted as the group manager for worldwide operations at Microsoft Corp. and as a product manager at Nestlé USA.

Tracker Pixel for Entry


  • BY Rourke OBrien

    ON August 23, 2007 02:38 PM


    I agree completely.  As long as the funders involvement is consistent with the mission and goals of the organization, it seems to me that it is actually their duty to do whatever they can to advance the ball.  Long term, systemic change most often requires a highly focused effort and a relentless pursuit from a number of sources.

  • BY Chuck Harris

    ON August 23, 2007 04:09 PM

    Paul—agreed. The social problems we face will call on every resource we have—including public, individual and corporate private financial support as well as more enlightened policy.

  • BY Susan Frank

    ON August 23, 2007 05:31 PM

    Paul - I completely agree. My foundation has been engaged in advocacy/public policy (and the “L” word - lobbying) for eight years with great success on environmental, nuclear weapons, stem cell research, and campaign finance reform issues. Forgive me as I toot our horn, but I have long wished that more foundations were willing to engage in this kind of work. Our founders (Steve and Michele Kirsch) created us as a supporting foundation of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation for the exact reason that they wanted us to be able to do policy work and lobbying. We had to pay our dues in terms of people learning to trust that our motives were pure (systemic change) and that we would work in the trenches (and the halls of the State Capitol and in Washington, DC) to advance the issues. The payoff has been huge, both in terms of advancing issues but also building collaborations. Sadly, so many foundations that can legally lobby/advocate choose not to because of some of the issues raised on Paul’s post. I hope this will change in the years to come.

  • BY Vickie Cammack

    ON August 23, 2007 07:01 PM

    A different kind of philanthropic engagement is required to address the roots of what we now understand to be very complex and pervasive problems.  Traditional funding and service delivery options are not working.  Poverty, homelessness, isolation are all on the rise.  In Canada we have just completed a two exploration funded by the McConnell Family Foundation on social innovation and sustainability.  A summary of this exploration called ‘Accelerating Our Impact:  Philanthropy, Innovation and Social Change’ has a number of considerations for funders thinking of engaging in system level change including:

    1) Changing funding cycles to reflect the long term nature of system change - 10 years is realistic
    2) Convening multi sectoral tables to address challenges such as social financing and technology that cut across the citizen sector
    3) Investing in learning networks and collaborations that have the promise of creating new and deeper knowledge even though they can promise little in the way of traditional deliverables.
    4) Developing a ‘culture of accompaniment’ and becoming co learners with grantees

    the full document can be accessed at http://www.mcconnellfoundation.ca/utilisateur/documents/EN/Initiatives/Sustaining Social Innovation/Accelerating_our_Impact.pdf

  • Clara Jong's avatar

    BY Clara Jong

    ON August 24, 2007 11:19 AM

    Yes.  A community of philanthropists can effect markets.  But as Jane Wales so astutely pointed out, “markets provide a rational distribution of wealth but policy provides an equitable distribution of wealth.”

  • Page Snow's avatar

    BY Page Snow

    ON August 25, 2007 11:14 AM

    Paul - The nature of the problem and its developmental stage should drive foundation decisions whether to adopt an “honest broker’ vs. “advocacy” role.  Nascent issues are often best addressed by providing fact-based information to sort out contradictory data or opposing arguments.  For example, in early discussions on climate change, the debate focused on degree to which global warming was occurring and, if so, whether it was caused by human activity.  At that point, there was a need for objective, credible information (beyond the fray of partisan politics) to help the media, policy makers and the general public answer these questions. 

    Now that the evidence is in, the focus can be on directly influencing federal and state policy on climate change.  At this point, philanthropic activity should focus on mobilizing a broad base of support around specific solutions. 

    So, in my view, the question is not whether foundations SHOULD engage in advocacy; it’s WHEN is it the best approach?

  • Jim Knight's avatar

    BY Jim Knight

    ON December 4, 2007 10:13 PM

    and when they engage in advocacy, pitting one group of taxpayers against another, isn’t this the point where they should lose their tax exemption?

Leave a Comment


Please enter the word you see in the image below:


SSIR reserves the right to remove comments it deems offensive or inappropriate.