imageImagine you are the new CEO of a publicly-supported grantmaker that has suffered declines in funds raised over the past 10 years. Would you choose to: 

  • Redefine your primary purpose to be fighting poverty?
  • Lead your large board of directors, overwhelmingly from large corporations, to make a substantial commitment to policy advocacy?

Such a strategy carries high risk, but it may also offer high rewards. In their canonical article “Philanthropy’s New Agenda: Creating Value,”1 Michael Porter and Mark Kramer identified “changing the environment” in which grantees operate as the highest level of strategic impact a foundation could hope to achieve. (The others, in ascending order, were consistently choosing the best grantees over time, attracting support to those grantees from other funders, and improving the performance of grantees.) Not all “game changing” initiatives involve policy changes, but in many fields, such as health, human services, the environment, education, and social justice, potential policy changes comprise a commanding share of potential high-impact strategic goals. 

The same case for pursuing a policy strategy applies to nonprofits as well as to foundations. This is something I’ve always emphasized to nonprofit boards and executives when discussing the propriety and benefits of policy advocacy. Organizations trying to prevent foster children from becoming homeless, for example, should also keep an eye on how policy affects that purpose.  Sounds reasonable enough – that’s the case they should make to their boards of directors, and be prepared to make to the broader public.

That’s all fine for foundations with their endowments, I often hear; but what about the risks to a nonprofit’s ability to raise funds and attract volunteers? 

Community foundations have struggled with this dilemma for many years.  Facing competitive pressures from organizations like Vanguard or Merrill Lynch, some community foundations have sought to compete on the basis of efficiency and service to donors, while others have instead emphasized the change they hoped to help create through their philanthropy. Emmett Carson, president of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and former president of the Minneapolis Community Foundation, has made a very persuasive argument that, while it may alienate some donors, taking leadership on community issues in the end should attract even more donors and more passionate commitment to the organization.  

The United Way of Greater Los Angeles is one organization that has taken this high-risk strategy. Its example may hold a number of lessons for advocates of funding for social change, and for funders who, whatever their motives, are looking to boost their impact. (I describe why and how they made this shift in this article in Responsive Philanthropy, NCRP’s quarterly journal.) It is too soon to tell whether its new strategy will reverse the downward trend in donations to UWGLA, and there are some who are skeptical about the motives behind the shift. But there is little doubt that the new focus is widely perceived in the Los Angeles philanthropic world to be a major step forward (based on comparing data from interviews with funders over two years ago to similar interviews last summer).  When I asked Elise Buik, UWGLA’s President, about Emmett Carson’s argument that asking donors to join a cause will attract more support over time, she responded, “Well, when you stand for something, you definitely attract new people, and good things can follow.”

UWGLA’s example also may say something about whether board members, who can be quite conservative and risk averse, are as likely to oppose adding policy goals to the mix as is commonly thought. I was recently fortunate to make a presentation to their board about the law governing policy advocacy for nonprofit organizations. Having made dozens of similar presentations to nonprofit directors and leaders, I was amazed at how little controversy was expressed among the board members about the decision to commit to take policy positions. Some of this, no doubt, was due to the work UWGLA staff had done over many months to prepare the board for this step, but it also seemed that the board members – three out of four from large businesses – already knew well the value of lobbying. As Matt Miller has argued, big business has found that well executed lobbying can deliver unbeatable returns. 

1. Free access to the article is also available here – use your own best ethical sense.

imagePeter Manzo is the director of strategic initiatives for the Advancement Project, a civil rights advocacy organization, and a senior research fellow with the Center for Civil Society in the UCLA School of Public Affairs. Previously, he was the executive director and general counsel of the Center for Nonprofit Management.