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.