Note: Before the launch of the Open Philanthropy Project Blog, this post appeared on the GiveWell Blog. Uses of “we” and “our” in the below post may refer to the Open Philanthropy Project or to GiveWell as an organization. Additional comments may be available at the original post.

Over the last few months, I’ve been working on improving our broad understanding of the role that philanthropy can play in influencing and informing public policy. We feel that this is one of the major categories of philanthropy that we’re currently least well suited to understand.

This is the first in a series of posts. This post discusses:

  • Why we think it’s important to explore policy-oriented philanthropy.
  • What we’ve done so far in this exploration.
  • What our key questions have been.

First, a general note: there are cases in which philanthropists are legally constrained from funding certain types of policy-oriented activities, particularly (a) attempting to influence elections and (b) lobbying. (A summary of these constraints is discussed on page 13 of an Atlantic Philanthropies paper on supporting advocacy.) We haven’t yet focused on thoroughly understanding these issues, whose relevance may be limited since most of our audience has freedom to structure its giving as it chooses (i.e., we aren’t managing an endowment that’s locked into a particular organization type). When we refer to “influencing and informing policy,” we mean this statement to broadly encompass a variety of possible activities from lobbying and advocacy to general provision of information and education.

Why explore policy-oriented philanthropy?
From what we’ve seen, it’s very common for major philanthropists to seek some degree of influence on public policy. This sort of work is quite prominent in the previously discussed list of philanthropy’s success stories, and most of the major foundations we’ve spoken to put a fair amount of emphasis on influencing policy.

One argument we’ve heard for focusing on policy is the sheer scale of government as compared to philanthropy. To give a simple example: the U.S. government alone is estimated (by IHME) to spend more on global health aid than all foundations and NGOs (excluding GAVI and GFATM, which draw much of their support from governments) combined; the discrepancy grows if one considers other governments, multilateral organizations such as the World Bank and World Health Organization, etc. We believe this general pattern to hold across many sectors, such that a relatively small (percentage) impact on government spending could justify a huge expenditure in philanthropic terms. Of course, there are many ways in which the importance of policy can go beyond funding. For example, migration to the developed world appears to be an extremely effective poverty reduction measure, but in most cases, migration faces hard policy restrictions.

For nearly every cause we’ve looked into, influencing policy is one possible path to having as much impact as possible per dollar spent, and in some (such as labor mobility) it is the only clear path to impact.

However, influencing policy is unlikely to be something we can analyze using our traditional approach and criteria. Because it is inherently adversarial - advocating for any given policy change likely means advocating against someone else’s preferred policy - there are unlikely to be proven, repeatable interventions with easily quantified expected impact. We’ve been trying to understand what sorts of things philanthropists can do to try to influence policy, and under what circumstances one might expect these to be effective.

Our process for exploring policy-oriented philanthropy

We’ve come to believe that in the early stages of an investigation, when we often don’t know which questions to ask, the ability to have extended, repeated, friendly, low-stakes interactions to get “grounded in the basics” is crucial, and we’ve largely used referrals from existing contacts to get started. Our investigation has included:

Key questions we’ve focused on
While we’ve largely tried to keep our investigation open-ended, we’ve been particularly interested in the following questions:
  • What are the “tools” of policy-oriented philanthropists? What are the activities one can fund that have a chance of influencing/informing policy?
  • What is the track record of policy-oriented philanthropy? With what probability, and on what time frame, can one reasonably expect to have an impact on policy?
  • What are the best opportunities to make a difference within policy-oriented philanthropy today?

Each will be the subject of a future post.

Leave a comment