Last week, New York’s attorney general Eric Schneiderman added his voice to the chorus of people calling on philanthropists to take on a larger role in the public policy process. He called on foundations to move away from “transactional giving” and toward backing longer-term efforts to mobilize public support for social change. Such advocacy efforts can lead to game-changing impact, but they also place unique risks and burdens on donors. Collaborating with like-minded donors can help alleviate those risks and burdens. Reflecting on our experience helping donors with strategies and with hosting donor collaboratives at the New Venture Fund, I offer three important reasons that have led funders to work together on advocacy projects.
First, there is simply strength in numbers. Engaging in the policy process is inherently riskier than many other grant-making strategies. A collaborative effort allows individual foundations to share these risks with other donors, and gives grantees the added security of diversified funding. Foundation trustees can be bolder knowing that they aren’t jumping in alone, and that they can leverage their resources with those from other funders. A larger pool of resources also allows for the kinds of longer-term campaigns that are often required to tackle our thorniest social problems.
Second, combining networks is often critical to success. A collaborative allows funders to engage much wider networks of partners and allies, including each others’ grantees. Funders can be tremendously influential through their ability to connect with civic and cultural leaders and influencers. But ultimate success in social change campaigns usually comes from engagement at the grassroots level—through lobbying outreach and through broad attitudinal change driven by effective communications campaigns. The ability to support and mobilize a wider network of grantees, each with its own constituencies, can be invaluable.
Third, pooling funds creates funding flexibility. Private foundations are not able to earmark support for lobbying (at the state, federal or international levels). But they are able to offer project-specific grants to fund the non-lobbying portions of campaigns run by public charities. When a group of donors comes together to fund a project with lobbying and non-lobbying components, the grantees have more flexibility in using those grants to engage in direct and grassroots lobbying.
At Arabella, and in partnership with the New Venture Fund, we have seen donors come together to successfully support passage of legislation (on childhood nutrition, for example) and other policy objectives. We are also currently working with a group of donors to support a grant-making and advocacy strategy for reducing gun violence. There are lots of good examples of advocacy-focused donor collaboration out there—watch this space for information about some of our favorites.
Lee Bodner oversees Arabella’s management of two nonprofits: the New Venture Fund, a 501(c)(3) public charity, and the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a separate 501(c)(4). Both serve as fiscal sponsors to new and innovative public interest projects and nonprofits as they coordinate donor collaboratives and small-grants programs.