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Foundations are often interested in catalyzing policy change. In the United States, however, this is a difficult task to accomplish. The political system is fragmented, with many policy venues. Individual politicians are often able to block change and the two parties have grown farther apart on many issues. Overall, these factors make the system oriented towards the status quo, rather than policy change.
The Energy Foundation is a charitable philanthropy founded in 1991 with an annual budget approximately of $100 million. Given the dispersed nature of energy problems, the Energy Foundation was consciously oriented towards making policy gains outside the federal level, with its headquarters in California rather than DC. Throughout the 1990s, the Foundation funded a network of NGOs across the states that, over time, led to new and expanded energy and environmental policies.
Critically, the foundation funded a mix of groups in a given state: both insider, elite NGOs focused on the technical policy details; and outsider, grassroots NGOs interested in creating political momentum for action. These grassroots groups were funded from the beginning, and treated as equal players in policy debates within the NGO network. And both groups worked together. When policymaking windows of opportunity emerged, this approach positioned policy ideas and mobilization strategies to push environmental policies onto the agenda and ensure their passage.
Today, some philanthropic funders, such as the Rockefeller Family Fund, rely on this more balanced approach and provide significant support to grassroots groups. But overall the amount of money flowing into environmental and energy groups is skewed towards large professionalized organizations.