Gearing Up Your Giving: Investing in Advocacy and Politics

Uncategorized Mar 22, 2022

 Outsize Impact Idea #3: Engage in Advocacy (and Politics) to Influence the Flow of Public Resources

If you are looking for outsize impact in your giving, don't overlook the opportunities that come with giving to support advocacy or even elections and political reform.   This post and video that goes with share some ideas about how to go about this kind of giving, and reviews some of the most common concerns that donors have about focusing their giving in this way.

As a starting point, it's worth remembering that many issues that matter a great deal take massive amounts of resources to address. Public education and affordable housing are two examples. One of the most leveraged ways for philanthropists to engage on these issues is by influencing how public dollars are allocated. 


Three key pathways for influencing public policy

  1. Influence policymakers’ choices through lobbying and other forms of advocacy.
  2. Influence who is actually in office by engaging in electoral politics
  3. Work on reforming the rules of our electoral system itself.


Overcoming Objections: 4 Reasons Many Donors Hang Back from Advocacy and Politics

Too many donors hang back from advocacy and electoral engagement. So let’s address  the concerns we most often hear from these donors. 

  1. “It’s against the rules to support lobbying and advocacy with my charitable giving.” Not true. Most nonprofit organizations are permitted to lobby, and almost every type of vehicle for charitable giving is allowed to provide support to these entities. Even private foundations can make gifts to public charities that engage in advocacy and lobbying. To do so, they must restrict their funds to non-lobbying activities, and the gift can’t exceed the total amount the organization spends on non-lobbying activities. Under certain circumstances, it’s even possible for a private foundation to make grants to non-charitable advocacy organizations (commonly known as 501(c)(4)’s). The Alliance for Justice has published a set of very helpful guides on this topic. There are some details that need close attention here, but the general point holds. You can gain lots of leverage from supporting lobbying and other forms of advocacy. With care, you can do so within the bounds of the applicable rules and regulations.

  2. “Political giving is not tax-deductible.” True, but so what? You can engage in political giving as an individual with personal funds. You can also donate through an LLC, which is one reason more and more high-capacity donors are using them. So, think twice before you put your entire philanthropic corpus in a vehicle that can only make charitable gifts. By doing so you are giving up a key source of leverage.

  3. “Political giving feels dirty and broken.” It may feel dirty, but it's definitely not broken. Political giving actually works very well to influence public policy and public spending. That’s why those looking to advance their own interests at the expense of the public do so much of it. Don’t leave the field to be dominated by those who are in it for selfish reasons.  
  4. “We’re stuck. Our democratic system is hopelessly gridlocked and there's no way to change it.” This is exactly why it’s so important to consider the ultimate leverage play when it comes to political philanthropy: investing in changing the rules of our democracy to better serve the public interest.  As Katharine Gehl and Michael Porter point out in their book The Politics Industry, breaking partisan gridlock and special interest power is one of the most leveraged ways to support policymaking that better aligns with the public interest.  It won’t be easy to institute rank choice voting and revamp the procedural rules of Congress... but it isn’t a pipe dream. These reforms would do much to transcend the extreme polarization and gridlock that interferes with scaling viable, valuable solutions to all kinds of issues.

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