The Center for Effective Philanthropy’s new report, Policy Influence: What Foundations are Doing and Why, provides a welcome snapshot of the sector’s recent approach to policy engagement.

Policy Influence highlights a chronic condition in philanthropy: practice often falls short of aspiration.

Grantmakers are not sharing power as well as they could when it comes to policy engagement. While nonprofits consistently assert that they can best thrive when given general support and multiyear funding — and while the sector generally acknowledges this wisdom — many grantmakers still eschew these common-sense tips. Only 27 percent of foundation leaders say it is extremely important to provide core support for grantees’ policy efforts, and 54 percent have grant agreements that explicitly prohibit or limit lobbying. This prohibition is needlessly restrictive, as Bolder Advocacy has argued for years.

Why aren’t funders’ practices matching their aspirations? Foundation leaders cite challenges that seem to be perennial despite ample knowledge sharing on how to address them.

For example, at least one in three funders are unsure how to measure the effectiveness of their efforts. Yet, Bolder Advocacy, Innovation Network, Center for Evaluation Innovation, and others have spent the last decade or more producing guidance and sharing best practices on assessing advocacy efforts.

Another barrier is that grantmaker boards in particular are afraid of blowback if they take public stands, or if they fund nonprofits that do. Yet very few funders in CEP’s study report reprisals for engaging in the policy arena, and no community foundations report losing more donors than they gained. (In fact, 30 percent gained more donors than they lost!) Foundations can mitigate fears of blowback by soliciting input and co-creating policy agendas and strategies with grant partners and community leaders. Bringing funder board members and supportive legal counsel into dialogue with stakeholders to envision policy outcomes and tactics can help forge a stiffer backbone and perhaps motivate greater giving to policy work.

A majority of survey respondents also report engaging in policy collaboratives, which offers a way to share risk (and stretch limited policy dollars). But rather than considering how best to share risk, funders should reconceptualize risk altogether. Foundation leaders, consider the risks of engaging in policy compared to the risks of non-action (continuation or worsening of the status quo), or compared to the risks that communities of color and other under-resourced communities face every day. Funders and their trustees often enjoy tremendous privilege, yet they rarely assess risk in the context of their relative privilege. It’s time they do so.

Finally, many grantmakers feel overwhelmed by the enormity of policy challenges and struggle to weigh policy work against competing priorities. My colleagues and I at the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) urge funders and donors to bring an intersectional racial equity lens to these considerations to help overcome this challenge. By soliciting frequent community feedback (especially from under-resourced constituencies) and centering internal discussions in data and analysis on the impacts and causes of systemic racism as well as other “isms,” grantmakers can gain greater clarity on who should be prioritized for benefit and which strategies make the most sense for advancing equitable solutions.

Read the full article about centering equity by Lisa Ranghelli at The Center for Effective Philanthropy.