Policy influence is difficult to measure, making it vulnerable to pendulum swings in funders’ approaches. At the moment, in most areas of public policy the field is in the process of a swing away from top-down and toward bottom-up practices. I believe there are five dimensions of this swing that funders should consider in their grantmaking. In my view, the aspiration is to be somewhere in the middle — drawing the best from both ends of the spectrum to build a strategy that is both authentic to the voice of communities in need as well as politically pragmatic.

Expertise: The technical-to-proximate continuum.
A positive recent development has been that more foundations are intentionally broadening how they define and value expertise. Too often in the past, a deep understanding of community context and proximity to vulnerable populations was an undervalued form of knowledge. A decade ago, for example, due diligence on a policy nonprofit might have focused most heavily on the credentials of their legislative analysts and their connections in the state house.

Issues: The generic-to-specific continuum.
Funders are trending toward listening more carefully to the constraints of nonprofit policy partners and supporting a flexible approach to issues. Yet, if not set within clear boundaries, this flexibility risks both disingenuousness and future conflict with grantees.

There is a sweet spot between an overly narrow agenda and an “anything goes” approach. It is necessary for foundations to find and articulate that.

Information: The truth-to-propaganda continuum.
As grantmakers have moved to become more issues agnostic, they have developed a corollary theory of change about information. The gist is: “As funders, our information is inherently biased, so we must be careful not to frame the conversation with it. If we empower communities to have greater voice, they will know what to say.”

Much of this is true. However, there are informational roles that funders should play that are not propagandist, but rather that help new advocates find their authentic truth.

Goals: The immediate-to-generational continuum.
The pendulum is tipping toward giving with “no strings attached,” with an aspiration for societal change across a generational time horizon.

This longer-term thinking is more in line with the pace of policy change and respects the time it takes to achieve community consensus. Yet, it also burdens grantees with a new set of responsibilities, as they must navigate the infinite options on an advocacy path without experienced foundation partners. Shorter-term timelines and metrics can help as tools for rallying new participants, focusing direction, and allowing groups to recognize and celebrate small wins on the longer journey.

Approach: The practitioner-to-wonk continuum.
Funders have the ability to convene stakeholders of varying skillsets and foster their collaboration. The most compelling policy case is one that marries the rigorous research of think tanks or academia with the transformative stories that can only come from direct service providers. There are limitations to either research or storytelling as standalone advocacy strategies, but few organizations can do both well. Funders would be wise to lean into their role as a connector to build networks that can succeed at influencing policy.

Read the full article about finding the goldilocks zone by Celine Coggins at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.