Amid multiple pandemics in the United States that are disproportionately harming communities of color — and a colossal failure in government response — we need philanthropy to pursue policy changes that dismantle the structural inequities plaguing the nation.

Foundations are uniquely positioned to contribute to systems change. Without the constraints of election cycles or quarterly reports, they have the freedom to plan and act over a long-term horizon — and to take swift action when needed. Foundations can experiment and take risks without external pressures that other sectors face, freeing them to address the thorny problems that have defied government or market solutions.

First, philanthropic advocacy can elevate unheard voices. “The scales of influence in our democracy are not balanced. Our role is to lift up voices that are often ignored,” one foundation leader interviewed for the study told us. Foundations should fund, amplify, and give power to voices that are excluded from political decisions that shape their lives.   For example, a group of foundations is funding the Families and Workers Fund’s advocacy efforts that center workers and families in decision-making on relief efforts and future economic policy. And dozens of foundations in California, with leadership from Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees (GCIR), called on Governor Gavin Newson to provide relief measures to undocumented Californians.

Second, philanthropic advocacy can advance justice and equity, and specifically racial equity. It’s not news that social policy contributes to unequal outcomes and racial inequities, which one foundation leader we interviewed rightly calls out as “injustices perpetrated through public policy.” This moment requires a massive overhaul of the systems that have led to such injustices. As such, foundations’ responses must center racial equity.

Third, philanthropic advocacy can fuel a vibrant, open, and more democratic society. As historian Olivier Zunz has put it, philanthropy has much more often “enlarged” our democracy than threatened it. For example, hundreds of U.S. nonprofits and foundations have been advocating for a fair and accurate 2020 Census and safeguarding the right to vote. In light of the pandemic, grantmakers like Thornburg Foundation are financing safe census outreach activities for hard-to-count communities. Jacob & Valeria Langeloth Foundation recently announced its largest-ever single gift, which supports get-out-the-vote initiatives focused on communities of color.

Fourth, philanthropic advocacy can serve as a check and balance to government. One foundation leader put it bluntly: “Government is not going to fund litigation to sue itself to do better by immigrant children.”

Read the full article about the need to advocate by Naomi Orensten at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.