Impact That Lasts: How To Get Involved in Policy Advocacy

Dec 6, 2023

Philanthropists can help achieve lasting change by considering policy advocacy. Here’s how to get started.

Daniel Widome, Senior Philanthropic Advisor, Morgan Stanley

Key Takeaways

  • Influencing the policymaking process can help philanthropists achieve lasting change.
  • It’s important to research the organizations you want to support with policy advocacy. 
  • Networking with figures who are directly involved in the policymaking process can boost policy advocacy efforts. 

When giving back to your community, it is essential—and often deeply rewarding—to directly support the organizations doing good work on the ground. These organizations come from their communities, know their challenges and are often best equipped to address them. But it can be hard to drive lasting change solely by supporting direct service. Over time, and despite the essential nature of this work, philanthropists may feel like they are treating the symptoms rather than the root causes of what’s ailing their communities.


So how can philanthropists help achieve deeper, systemic, more lasting change? Policy advocacy—the art of influencing the policymaking process—is one approach that can drive outsized impact.

Philanthropists looking to leverage their influence can consider ways to elevate key personnel within the policymaking process to ensure that their preferred policies are implemented.

Why policy advocacy?

Despite the growth of private giving in recent decades, it still pales in comparison to how much the public sector spends. The sheer magnitude of what federal, state and local governments dedicate to social challenges means that having even a small influence on how those funds are disbursed can have an enormous impact.


More fundamentally, the policymaking process can literally change the rules of the game by which society’s challenges are addressed. It defines the scope of what is permissible or forbidden in society, and which collective or individual behaviors are incentivized or discouraged. No amount of private giving, on its own, can create that kind of change.


How can I engage in policy advocacy?

Policy advocacy can be intimidating. It presents reputational risks, its impact is often difficult to measure and progress toward change can be slow. But as with any kind of investment, the heightened potential risks are matched by heightened potential rewards. Following these best practices can help you influence policy while navigating the risks.

The policymaking process can literally change the rules of the game by which society’s challenges are addressed.
  • Use the appropriate vehicles

When considering which policy-focused organizations to support, it’s critical to understand how those organizations are recognized by the government and the resulting trade-offs in their activities. Many of the tax-exempt organizations that philanthropists typically support are qualified under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. These organizations can only engage in policy advocacy in strictly limited ways. For example, they cannot endorse political candidates.


But other types of nonprofits—such as those qualified under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code—can share more overtly partisan political messages. Philanthropists across the political spectrum give to 501(c)(4)s to advance more aggressive messaging strategies around their preferred policies or more explicitly support their favored political candidates.


Contributions to 501(c)(3) organizations are deductible from your income tax, while contributions to 501(c)(4) organizations are not. However, for many donors, the lack of deductibility may be worthwhile to be able to engage in policy advocacy.


  • Support the policymaking infrastructure

Undergirding the entire policymaking process is an infrastructure of individuals and groups that work patiently over time to provide the necessary fuel for policy change. Investing in the activities and organizations that engage citizens at the grassroots level–those most directly affected by a particular policy–can be essential to craft, deliver and amplify the messages that elected policymakers find impossible to ignore. Focusing support on building the capacity of these grassroots organizations can pay the greatest dividends over the long term.


The policymaking infrastructure also includes the think tanks, academic institutions and thought leaders that nurture the ideas that inform actual legislation. These policy analysts can conduct long-term studies and ideate possible policy interventions over years or even decades, resulting in ready-made solutions that policymakers can take off the shelf when the opportunity presents itself. Supporting this intellectual infrastructure can represent a highly leveraged investment to influence busy policymakers.


  • Invest in the right people

The most promising policy is only as effective as the public officials tasked with its interpretation and implementation. Philanthropists looking to leverage their influence can consider ways to elevate key personnel within the policymaking process to ensure that their preferred policies are implemented–or to navigate around those who present obstacles to change.


For many–philanthropists or not–policymaking may seem to operate with its own unique language. Instead of trying to become fluent in that language themselves, philanthropists can directly engage those who are native to that world. For instance, collaborating with former politicians, activists and lobbyists who have first-hand experience in the policymaking process can empower philanthropists with essential expertise for implementing an advocacy agenda.


  • Identify strategic policy windows

Certain moments can trigger “policy windows,” during which, meaningful change suddenly—and, often, fleetingly—becomes  much more realistic. Policy windows can open during election cycles, especially when political candidates are crafting their positions, or during regular budgeting cycles, when policymakers are considering competing alternatives for how to spend public dollars. News events can also create unexpected policy windows–for example, when extreme weather events raise awareness and a sense of urgency about the effects of climate change. Philanthropists can leverage their influence by focusing their efforts on these policy windows.


Policy windows can also open at different levels of government. Although federal policymaking often attracts the most attention, state and local governments possess enormous influence over how (and whether) community challenges are adequately addressed. Education policy is one issue in which this dynamic can be most pronounced. Instead of focusing on the federal level, for example, one notable philanthropist, focused on K-12 teaching effectiveness, directed their grantmaking toward organizations exclusively working within states and even specific counties.


The importance of policy advocacy

Policy advocacy can be intimidating. But it also can be a powerful complement to direct support, opening an avenue to tackle the root causes of some of society’s greatest challenges. When done thoughtfully and strategically, it can be an essential tool to help you make a lasting impact.

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