History of Philanthropy Case Study: The Campaign for Marriage Equality

The campaign for marriage equality in the U.S. over the past couple decades is a remarkable success story. To better understand philanthropy’s role in it, we commissioned Benjamin Soskis, whose work we’ve funded via our history of philanthropy project, to produce a literature review and case study (.pdf). It covers the history of the campaign to secure marriage equality in the United States, which culminated in the Supreme Court’s decision, in Obergefell v. Hodges, that the U.S. Constitution guarantees same-sex couples the right to marry.

Here are a few of our takeaways from the report:

  • Philanthropic efforts likely played a role in the campaign for marriage equality, but there were also broad cultural trends toward more people being “out” as homosexual, and more people knowing someone who was out, and this likely shifted public opinion substantially. Thus, it’s not clear that this campaign’s “philanthropy playbook” would be effective if applied to other causes that do not benefit from analogous cultural trends.
  • There is mixed evidence with respect to whether philanthropic “insiders” had correct strategic views:
    • Some strategic decisions made by “outsiders” looked at the time (to insiders) to be reckless and counterproductive. Some of those look like good decisions in retrospect, while others ended up looking counterproductive in the short run, but may (or may not) have been productive in the long run. Some decisions that look good in retrospect may only appear so due to the (potentially) inevitable long-run success of the campaign.
    • Some of the data-driven messaging analysis pushed by the “insiders” looks quite successful in retrospect.
    • Despite the fact that the ultimate victories were in the Supreme Court, there were some philanthropic contributions that seem highly relevant, particularly funding messaging analysis and ballot initiatives. There are good arguments that legislative and ballot victories played an important role in later Supreme Court decisions, including Obergefell v. Hodges.

Read the full literature review and case study here (.pdf)

History of Philanthropy Case Study: The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and State EITC Programs

Suzanne Kahn, a consultant who has been working with us as part of our History of Philanthropy project, recently finished a case study on the role of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) in state-level Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) programs. This report is a follow-up to her earlier report on CBPP’s founding and early growth, and investigates CBPP’s claim that CBPP “created the concept of state EITCs and… developed state issue campaigns to secure their adoption. Before we started this work, no state had its own EITC; today, 26 do.”

The report finds that:

  • CBPP and its network of state-level organizations have probably been the largest advocate for, and defender of, state EITC programs. It seems likely that CBPP is an important cause of some states’ EITC programs, though causal attribution was more difficult in this case study than it has been in some previous studies.
  • CBPP wasn’t involved in the very earliest state EITC programs. However, when the Center began working on state EITCs, no state in the country had a state EITC in effect that it had knowingly adopted. Moreover, the earliest state EITC programs (in Rhode Island and Wisconsin) were non-refundable, meaning that (unlike the federal EITC program) these programs didn’t pay tax filers the amount of the credit they earned beyond the taxes they would’ve otherwise paid, but instead only zeroed-out the filer’s taxes. CBPP has tried to ensure that state programs offer refundable tax credits, and 6 of 7 states that have switched from a nonrefundable to a refundable credit had a CBPP state partner working in the state at the time.
  • In half of the 30 states that now have a state EITC, there were no state organizations affiliated with CBPP’s efforts before the adoption of that state’s EITC. However, in some of the states without a CBPP affiliate, the Center worked with others on creating a state EITC program.

The report is also an interesting case study with respect to the question of “active” vs. “passive” funding. For the most part, funders of CBPP’s work on state EITC programs followed CBPP’s lead with respect to strategy in the space. However, the Rockefeller Foundation played a somewhat more active role at one point by commissioning a 1990 evaluation of CBPP’s work, which concluded that CBPP’s state-level work was not comparable to its federal work, and recommended abandoning the state work or hiring someone to rethink the approach. In response, CBPP hired Iris Lav, who radically rethought CBPP’s strategy for state policy work — including EITC programs — and secured funding for the new strategy from the Ford Foundation and others.

Read the full case study here (.pdf)

History of Philanthropy Case Study: The Impact of Philanthropy on the Passage of the Affordable Care Act

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.

Benjamin Soskis, who has been working for us on our history of philanthropy project, has completed a case study of philanthropy’s impact on the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA).

The case study focuses first on the Atlantic Philanthropies’ funding of Health Care for America Now! (HCAN), as well as on HCAN’s activities and impact. The second part of the study surveys the activities of other funders involved in health care reform, such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Kaiser Family Foundation, and the Commonwealth Fund.

The case study concludes that, as a whole, philanthropic spending had a critical, though not necessarily easily quantifiable, role in the passage of the ACA. In the following passage, Dr. Soskis quotes HCAN’s Doneg McDonough:

“There’s just no way health reform would have passed without the [philanthropically funded] outside efforts going on. No question about it. Beyond that, it gets a little fuzzy. How much of an impact did [any particular intervention] have and which things actually were critical to making the ACA happen?”

This last statement, with its combination of broadly conceived certitude and localized indeterminacy, epitomizes one of this report’s central findings regarding the claims of philanthropic impact. (Case Study, Pg. 4)

Dr. Soskis’s study also examines the difficulty of disentangling the impact of any one funder from the impact of philanthropy as a whole. He writes:

In fact, disaggregating the specific contributions of particular philanthropic funders and determining how to weigh them against each other proved one of the most significant challenges of this project. This would be an issue for any major policy initiative, but for national [health care reform], given the large number of funders involved and the efforts to coordinate activities between them, it proved even more challenging. This suggests one of the main paradoxes of evaluating the impact of philanthropy on the passage of health care reform legislation. Precisely those features which many considered essential to the passage of the ACA – the breadth, variety, and scale of philanthropic initiatives – also made it especially difficult to evaluate the contributions of any particular intervention. And the report highlights another paradox as well, one which presides over the entire study of policy impact evaluation: the more significant the legislative achievement, and the greater the impulse for various stakeholders involved to claim a definite degree of impact, the less likely it is that any determination of clear causal agency is actually possible. (Case Study, Pg. 4)

Read the full case study here (.pdf)

History of Philanthropy Case Study: Pew and Drug Safety Legislation

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.

Tamara Mann Tweel, who has been working for us on our history of philanthropy project, has completed a case study of a Pew Charitable Trusts (“Pew”) program focused on drug supply chain safety legislation in 2012.

The report concludes:

Pew put drug supply chain safety concerns on the legislative agenda in 2011 and actively built the coalition that ensured its passage in 2012. The team also assisted with and vetted the language of the 2012 bill and made sure that weak policy proposals did not supplant strong ones. Pew accomplished these goals largely by capitalizing on their expertise and by deploying the multi-pronged strategy [explained in this report]. Pew did not act alone. It had the assistance of strong industry partners, FDA officials, and key congressmen and senators… [Pew] became the single most important non-government and non-industry player in the field. They brought the stakeholders together, gave them the necessary information to pursue the topic, and demonstrated the viability of actual policy.

The full case study is available here.

Our impression is that Pew has had fairly concrete impact on policy in a variety of areas (note that we’ve separately investigated its work on public safety performance, in the context of a $3 million grant we made to Pew). While its model is not the only or necessarily best one for policy-oriented philanthropy, we believe it is one example of a generally well-executed and impactful model, and that Pew is a group we can learn from. We chose to do a case study on its work in order to examine our beliefs on this point, and we believe that the case study has generally been consistent with our views on Pew’s work.

Read the full case study here

Open Philanthropy Project Update: U.S. Policy

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.

Last year, we set a “stretch goal” for the Open Philanthropy Project:

There are two types of causes – global catastrophic risks and US policy issues – that we now feel generally familiar with (particularly with the methods of investigation). We also believe it is important for us to pick some causes for serious commitments (multiple years, substantial funding) as soon as feasible, so that we can start to get experienced with the process of building cause-specific capacity and finding substantial numbers of giving opportunities. As such, our top goal for 2014 is a stretch goal (substantial probability we will fail to hit it): making substantial commitments to causes within these two categories. We aren’t sure yet how many causes this will involve; it will depend partly on our ability to find suitable hires. We also haven’t fully formalized the notion of a “substantial commitment to cause X,” but it will likely involve having at least one staff member spending a substantial part of their time on cause X, planning to do so for multiple years, and being ready to commit $5-30 million per year in funding.

This post is an update on our plans for U.S. policy; a future post will discuss global catastrophic risks.

In brief:

  • Our thinking on how, and how much, to “commit” to causes has evolved. Rather than commit major time and funding up front to a small number of causes, we are going with a longer list of prioritized causes, and we’re looking for a good combination of “high-priority cause” with “strong specific giving and/or hiring opportunity.”
  • With that said, we feel that we’ve fulfilled the spirit of the above goal, about a month behind the date we had set. We’ve done a large number of shallow- and medium-depth cause investigations, and we’re now transferring the bulk of our energy from these sorts of investigations to seeking out hires and grants in the causes we’ve prioritized.
  • Our new goal is to be in the late stages of making at least one “big bet” – a major grant ($5+ million) or full-time hire – in the next six months. We think there is a moderate likelihood that we will hit this goal; if we do not, we will narrow our focus to a smaller number of causes in order to raise our odds.
  • Our highest priority is to make a full-time hire on criminal justice reform, factory farming (pending a last bit of cause investigation, focused on the prospects for research on meat alternatives), or macroeconomic policy. Our second-highest priority is to further explore international labor mobility and land use reform, with an eye to either finding more giving opportunities (hopefully including at least one major one) or to developing a full-time job description. A more extensive summary of our priorities is available as a Google sheet.
  • We have recently been prioritizing investigation over public writeups, and there are many shallow- and medium-depth investigations we have completed but not written up. We are experimenting with different processes for writing up completed investigations – in particular, trying to assign more of the work to more junior staff – so our public writeups could remain behind our private investigations for much of the next few months.

Below, we go into more detail on:

  • Our progress since our May update. More
  • How our thinking and approach have evolved. More
  • Our plans from here. More

Progress since our May update

We’ve done internal shallow- and medium-level investigations – most of them not yet written up – on causes including:

  • Land use reform (e.g., zoning regulations), which we perceive as a cause with moderate importance and extremely little public-interest advocacy infrastructure (a green field).
  • Alcohol policy, which we have a similar assessment of, though our assessment of importance is still ongoing.
  • Aspects of intellectual property reform that go beyond software patent reform. We believe there are multiple interesting issues here, but nothing outstanding enough to be at the top of our priority list.
  • A broad set of issues around enhancing welfare by enhancing income security for relatively low-income people in the U.S. These include regulations around minimum wages, overtime, family and medical leave, the “minimum basic income” concept, etc. We initially expected this set of “traditional” issues to be too crowded and politically polarized to interest us, but having investigated more, we now believe there are a fair number of opportunities for funders to have impact at the state and local level, and that there isn’t enough funding to take advantage of all such opportunities.
  • The health care policy space. Our initial assessment is that this area seems very important but also quite crowded. We’re hoping to eventually investigate some sub-spaces that may be less crowded.

We’ve also put significantly more time into exploring causes that were already on our radar:

  • Criminal justice reform. We conducted a several-month, in-depth investigation of opportunities in criminal justice reform, a complex space and one that we see as high-priority due to the window of opportunity. The main findings from this investigation are available within this document (DOCX).
  • Macroeconomic policy. We came across what we considered a fairly outstanding giving opportunity in this area, the CPD Fed Up campaign, and invested a good deal of time in background research for this grant. (We put particular energy into understanding the complex debates behind the appropriate course of monetary policy.) We have provided $850,000.00 in support to this campaign to date.
  • Factory farming. Eliza Scheffler has conducted a medium-depth investigation of this cause; a writeup is forthcoming. We see this as a promising cause, and it is on our list to consider hiring in, pending a last bit of cause investigation, focused on the prospects for research on meat alternatives
  • Labor mobility. We have continued to work with Michael Clemens on finding and following giving opportunities in this space, and have been particularly following our grant to support IOM Haiti’s work facilitating seasonal migration.
  • Marijuana policy. We had been helping Good Ventures to navigate this cause as general support, but recently we’ve come to see an aspect of it – emphasizing optimal regulation rather than simply legalization – as a potential fit for the Open Philanthropy Project. Importance seems fairly low compared to most causes we are considering, but there is a very strong window of opportunity, and essentially no other funding focused on optimal regulation. We are still working on our estimate of the potential importance of this work, and expect to decide soon how to prioritize this cause.

Finally, we’ve done some cross-cutting work including:

How our thinking and approach have evolved

Through this work, our overall thinking on U.S. policy has shifted in several ways. Most importantly, we see a great deal of variation in how much different causes demand specialized, full-time, hires.

  • When looking at the criminal justice reform space, we see a very wide array of organizations that we could potentially support. In addition, there is room to have substantial impact in a broad variety of venues, from state-level policy changes (examples) to local-level experiments (example). We think that the “expert philanthropy model” would have major advantages over a lower-intensity approach in this space. We feel similarly about macroeconomic policy and factory farming, though in the case of macroeconomic policy the argument for “expert philanthropy” stems more from the complexity of the subject matter than the profusion of venues or potential grantees.
  • By contrast, causes like international labor mobility and land use reform present a different kind of challenge: there are very few people and organizations aligned with our priorities in these areas. Because of this, we can’t currently envision a full-time employee worth of high-value work to do in these areas. We also expect that the limited size of the fields would make it unusually difficult to find someone appropriate to work on these issues full time. Our current plan is to devote relatively little staff time to these causes beyond the level required to stay reasonably well-networked, while being explicitly open to potential grant opportunities and being prepared to devote significantly more staff time if a major grant opportunity arises.
  • Many causes occupy a middle ground. In many cases, it would not be unreasonable to take an “expert” approach to a cause, but we also feel we might maximize efficiency by understanding the cause at a high level and focusing on a small number of potentially outstanding giving opportunities. Examples in this range include foreign aid policy and tax policy. The decision to hold off on hiring experts in these areas is currently driven by a need to prioritize the use of our existing staff resources, rather than a view that it would be fundamentally mistaken to hire specialized staff in these areas.

Another general observation from working on U.S. policy is that we believe that the mix of policy priorities that is coming into focus for us does not map neatly onto progressivism, libertarianism, conservatism, or any other platform currently common in the U.S. policy world. This topic was a prominent theme in our recent day-long convening noted above.

This observation has a couple of implications. In the short run, we expect to have more difficulty than most funders with finding organizations that share our positions across a broad range of policy areas; we expect that we will find organizations/partners that share some but not all of our perspectives. For example, the organizations that share our views on land use policy may have a different take on income security. In the long run, we would like to strengthen and support the network of people who broadly share our policy priorities. Both of these are reasons to pursue a relatively broad philanthropic approach, keeping up on a large number of causes rather than specializing in a small number.


While there are many more cause investigations we could do, at this point we think it’s appropriate to shift our priorities in the direction of granting out significant funds in the causes we’ve already identified as promising. At the same time, we’re trying to give ourselves the flexibility to look across multiple possible causes, and only make a “big bet” (a full-time hire or major grant) where we feel the specific opportunity is outstanding. As such, we’ve created a relatively long prioritized list of causes, with goals for each, and our six-month goal is to be in the late stages of making a “big bet” in at least one area. We may continue to make smaller grants, with relatively light investigation, when we see reasonably strong opportunities, but this is not our main goal.

In order to determine which causes are most outstanding, we’re still putting substantial weight on the framework we outlined last May: looking for causes that (a) stand out on one of [importance, tractability or uncrowdedness], while (b) being competitive with other causes on the other two dimensions.

In addition, we’ve started separating issue areas by “need for a specialist,” as discussed above. On issues that demand a specialist, our main goal is to make a full-time hire; on others, our main goal is to wait and see what kinds of opportunities might be available (and potentially have existing generalist staff explore and make a grant if we find a credible opportunity). A third important category of cause is “shovel-ready” causes: causes where we have an unusually concrete sense of what (and in some cases whom) we could fund and the next step is largely deciding whether to do so.

A final note on our ranking of causes is that we’ve started more explicitly thinking of “high-venue” issues (issues where policy at the state and local level, not just the federal level, is relevant) as being both more complex and presenting more possible paths to impact that we can choose between. For this reason, we now list the “venues” for a cause separately in our spreadsheet.

Our highest priority is to hire and increase capacity in areas where we feel prepared to, and accordingly our current policy priorities list puts the causes that we’d be interested in hiring in at the top; they are followed by the strongest issues where we don’t have a good sense of what kinds of additional opportunities we could support, and those in turn are followed by our strongest “shovel-ready” issues. Our highest priority is to make a full-time hire for criminal justice reform, factory farming (pending a last bit of cause investigation, focused on the prospects for research on meat alternatives), or macroeconomic policy. Our second-highest priority is to further explore international labor mobility and land use reform, areas that we find conceptually very promising but in which we aren’t currently aware of (multiple promising-seeming) potential grant opportunities, and accordingly aren’t ready to make full-time hires in. These priorities are followed by several issues on which we have a relatively specific idea of what we could fund, and the next steps would be to investigate in much greater depth to decide whether the specific potential grants were worth making.

An additional goal for the next several months is to write up the more recent work we’ve done, most of which is not yet public. We are experimenting with different processes for writing up completed investigations – in particular, trying to assign more of the work to more junior staff.

Public summary of our U.S. policy priorities

The First Case Study from Our History of Philanthropy Project

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.

Benjamin Soskis, who has been working for us on our history of philanthropy project, has completed a case study (.docx) of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation-Pew Memorial Trust Health Care for the Homeless (HCH) program. We have found this case study very interesting and believe it to be a helpful addition to the literature on the history of philanthropy and its impacts. Dr. Soskis had previously compiled a literature review for this program (.docx).

In brief, the HCH program consisted of the following:

“In December 1983, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), in partnership with Pew Memorial Trusts, spurred by a recognition of how little was being done to address the health care needs of the homeless, issued a call for proposals to … develop means of incorporating the homeless into local outpatient health care systems…. Ultimately, the foundations funded 19 coalitions over the course of four years, spending a total of $25 million…. In June 1987, Congress passed the Stewart B. McKinney Homeless Assistance Act, the first major piece of federal legislation to address homelessness in more than half a century…. That the RWJF-Pew program should be granted a significant degree of causal impact in the incorporation of the program into the McKinney Act is undeniable.” (Case Study, Pg 1)

The full case study is available here (.docx).
The full list of sources is available here (.docx).

Dr. Soskis’s case study provides an example of how philanthropy can influence policy change. He writes:

“Incorporation of the HCH program within the McKinney Act was the result of a convergence of a well-designed demonstration project with a policy window opened by a campaign by homeless advocates begun earlier in the decade. The advocates pushed for the federal government to address the mounting crisis of homelessness and when that campaign came to fruition, the HCH program was available as a policy model. The RWJF-Pew HCH program, therefore, does not merely represent a model of a successful demonstration project, but of a particularly powerful convergence between philanthropic initiative and broader political currents.” (Case Study, Pg 3)

The picture that emerges from the case study seems importantly different from the picture we got from a shorter piece in a list of 100 philanthropic success stories. The shorter case made the project’s impact seem relatively more significant, and our interest in this case was partly due to the fact that we’ve been pointed to it repeatedly as one of philanthropy’s most clear-cut success stories. Dr. Soskis’s study does attribute significant impact to philanthropy, but also paints a more complex picture.

This is the first case study Dr. Soskis has completed. He is currently working on a similar study focused on the role played by philanthropy on the 2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act. We hope to share that (and other case studies) in the future.

Read the case study of the Health Care for the Homeless program (.docx)

The Track Record of Policy-Oriented Philanthropy

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.

As noted previously, I’ve been working on improving our broad understanding of the role that philanthropy can play in influencing and informing policy. One of the questions I’ve been focused on is “What is the track record of policy-oriented philanthropy?” Specifically:

  • Are there compelling cases in which a major policy change can be partially or fully credited to philanthropic efforts?
  • How often have philanthropic efforts succeeded in bringing about change? Often enough to imply a good “return on investment?”

I’ve concluded that answering these questions reasonably well could require an enormous, long-term effort. This is true both because the questions are inherently difficult to answer – many of philanthropy’s claimed impacts on politics are highly long-term and diffuse, such that it is difficult to confidently isolate impact – and because there has been little academic work on the subject.

Below, I first list salient examples I’ve seen in which philanthropy is believed (by some) to have had an important impact on public policy. I think the nature of these examples illustrates some of the challenges with isolating the impact of philanthropy. I then discuss our understanding of the current state of the literature on this topic, and what we would do to make more progress. For the purposes of this post only, “success” is defined as causally impacting public policy, not as having positive social impact, since the goal is to determine how and when philanthropy has been effective in changing policy (the question of how policy should be changed is a different question).

Potential cases of philanthropic impact on public policy

Many of the claimed success stories of policy-oriented philanthropy involve long-term (sometimes 10+ years), diffuse impacts. Pages 4-8 of The Elusive Craft of Evaluating Advocacy, by Steven Teles and Mark Schmitt (both of whom we’ve spoken with – see conversations notes for Teles and Schmitt) give a good feel for this kind of story, and cover some of the cases we’ve frequently heard reference to: the role of Atlantic Philanthropies and others in laying the groundwork for the Affordable Care Act, the role of (presumably philanthropy-backed) church and student groups in “claw[ing] back the application of the death penalty,” the repeal of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, and impact of the conservative Federalist Society, which is claimed to have magnified the impact of other organizations on law. We excerpt the part about health care reform, as an example:

The effort that culminated in 2010 was the work of decades, including a previous, high-profile failure in the early 1990s, multiple waves of state-based reform and numerous incremental efforts at the national level. Advocates invested hundreds of millions of dollars on initiatives ranging from media initiatives such as encouraging television producers to include stories of the uninsured, multiple coalition-building projects, university- and think tank-based research and well-funded grassroots initiatives.2 The basic outlines of reform policies were worked out well in advance, in advocacy groups and think tanks, who delivered a workable plan to presidential candidates. Key interest groups who could block reform, such as small business, had been part of foundation-supported roundtables seeking common ground for years. Technical problems had been worked out. And tens of millions of dollars had been set aside as long ago as 2007 for politically savvy grassroots advocacy initiatives targeted at key legislators. After a very long slog, the outcome was the Affordable Care Act.

Another very long-term, diffuse impact that has been cited to us is the case of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s efforts to reduce tobacco use.

  • Activities included funding research on the impact of policy on tobacco use (page 13), funding early-career researchers in the hopes of developing a stronger set of professionals focused on the issue (page 17), creating the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids (page 17), and indirect support for state-level lobbying (page 20).
  • The program started in 1991 and had reached ~$20 million per year by 1993 (page 12), but its goals – changing policy to be more discouraging of tobacco use and ultimately reducing smoking rates, particularly among minors – don’t seem to have shown much progress until after 1996 (see pages 36-38 for policy change indicators, page 26 for smoking rate data).
  • Given the number of different initiatives RWJF created and invested in, the number of states it worked in, and the long-term nature of some of its investments (building organizations, funding research and researchers), evaluating the extent to which its funding can be “credited” for reductions in tobacco use could be an extremely challenging project.
  • The Foundation spent ~$700 million in this area over time (page 12); if one assumes it reduced the number of smokers by 10 million (its evaluation estimates 5.3-14.2 million, page 28), then the total cost of the program was ~$70 per “person stopped from smoking,” which would compare favorably to our estimate of ~$80 per life-year gained for our top charity if smoking causes one to lose multiple years of life. The point of this calculation isn’t to praise the program – we haven’t vetted these figures and realize there are a substantial number of questions here – but to illustrate that the sort of claims made about policy impact imply potential competitiveness with our top charities.

We have also seen claims of shorter-term, more tangible impact of funders and nonprofits on public policy, though usually at smaller scale. Change Philanthropy goes through several such cases, including a movement in which lawsuits were brought against states alleging that they needed to invest more in education to comply with their own constitutions. The Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest also lists smaller-scale success stories. I’ve heard multiple informal claims that online advocacy groups had tangible, extremely rapid impact on halting (a) passage of the Stop Online Piracy Act (b) construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Assessing the ROI of policy-oriented philanthropy

While we’ve seen many claims of impact, none appear easy to assess. Moreover, the most prominent and largest-scale claimed impacts generally appear the hardest to evaluate.

We’ve asked multiple people (including Frank Baumgartner, Mark Schmitt and Steven Teles) whether there is a literature that might help us in this endeavor. It appears that we aren’t going to find any work systematically looking across a large number of philanthropic efforts to change policy, such that we could get an idea of aggregate return-on-investment. We may be able to find case studies on specific policy changes.

We don’t see a clear or easy path to assessing the question, “Can policy-oriented philanthropy have a high enough probability of success to make the cost-effectiveness competitive with our top charities?” We expect our History of Philanthropy project to generate better information on particular, high-profile claimed successes (perhaps via reviewing existing case studies, perhaps via generating new ones focused on the role of philanthropy). If it does, we may consider a more systematic project aiming to catalogue and investigate the policy-oriented work of a representative set of foundations. But it could be a long time before we have useful estimates of the “good accomplished per dollar” of policy-oriented philanthropy, and in the meantime, we will be moving forward on exploring good opportunities within policy-oriented philanthropy.

Reason to be optimistic about ROI

One rough, heuristic-based reason that I’m optimistic about policy-oriented philanthropy (in terms of “impact per dollar”) is that it generally seems like a given amount of money “means more” in the context of policy-oriented work than in other contexts.

There are many reasons that this comparison could be unfair or irrelevant, but it syncs with my general impression that the amount of money it takes to be a “significant player” is smaller in policy-oriented work than in direct aid or scientific research.

The Role of Philanthropic Funding in Politics

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.

As noted previously, I’ve been working on improving our broad understanding of the role that philanthropy can play in influencing and informing policy. One of the questions I’ve been focused on is “what sorts of activities can one fund in order to have an influence on policy?” I haven’t restricted myself to learning about activities permitted for 501(c)(3) charitable organizations; I’ve tried to get a broad understanding of the different activities that one can fund, from very direct (supporting candidates in elections) to very indirect (funding studies and analysis).

The range of possible activities is very wide, and due to the adversarial nature of policymaking, it may sometimes be the case that the most effective activities are the ones no one else has thought of yet. With that said, I’ve found it useful to make a rough list of what I perceive as the most common ways to translate funding into influence, to give a flavor of how (and in how many ways) money can play a role.

One of the ideas that I think emerges from this list is that the connection between money and policy change isn’t necessarily a matter of “quid pro quo” donations for actions. The connection can be very indirect, long-term, and complex – and is perhaps most powerful when it fits this description.

  • Lobbying – working directly with lawmakers to advocate for or against specific legislation or otherwise influence decisions – is what many people think of when they think of “putting money toward policy change.” However, I think many people imagine it to have more of a “quid pro quo” structure than it does. I think imagining lobbying as “subtly trading campaign contributions for influence” is less helpful than the “legislative subsidy” model described in this article (though both models may have elements of truth). In many cases, lobbyists’ strategy consists of working with people who share many of their core values, and providing expertise, analysis and arguments. In addition, by being expert in particular subjects, they are able to (a) spot situations in which a small and subtle legislative change can have major consequences, and advocate for this change; (b) find intersection between their goals and the goals of other interest groups, thus building coalitions around particular micro-issues.In addition to lobbying legislators in the hopes of influencing which laws get passed, it can also be important to lobby rule-makers on how laws get interpreted (more at this article). For more on lobbying, I recommend Lobbying and Policy Change by Frank Baumgartner (which focuses on lobbying legislators, and which I’ve found to be the most helpful book I’ve read on the subject so far) and Lobbying and Policymaking (which gives more discussion to lobbying rulemakers).
  • Think tanks and other producers of independent analysis. Think tanks produce a variety of policy-relevant analysis, including not only reports intended to inform and influence policymakers but also ideas for policies that can serve as compromises/reconciliations between different interest groups. One essay credits the latter type of work for a major role in health care reform:

    The effort that culminated in 2010 was the work of decades … The basic outlines of reform policies were worked out well in advance, in advocacy groups and think tanks, who delivered a workable plan to presidential candidates. Key interest groups who could block reform, such as small business, had been part of foundation-supported roundtables seeking common ground for years. Technical problems had been worked out.

    “Think tanks” is a broad category, and can mean many things. The Brookings Institution emphasizes its role in producing trusted centrist, informative analysis; other think tanks may see their roles as being to promote particular ideas, ideologies, and coalitions. For more, see a brief history of U.S. think tanks (I haven’t yet read the author’s book, but intend to).

    Funding academic research may be another way to influence policy debates, though the connection between academic research and policy is less direct than the connection between think tank work and policy.

  • Grassroots organizing is a broad term for doing the dedicated work needed to bring large numbers of people together so that they can become informed about, and express their views on, relevant policy issues. It can include community organizing (organizing people around local issues), online organizing (groups such as MoveOn.org, which use online petitions and other techniques to create email lists which they then solicit for donations, letter-writing campaigns, etc.), and building/staffing membership organizations around particular issues. At this point I’m personally most familiar with online organizing, as I have personal friends who work in this area. My impression is that this work often requires dedicated staff who can come up with ways – such as creative framing of news – to get large numbers of people to become aware of the relevant issues, share their contact information so they can be organized in the future, and take action (donating, writing in, attending rallies, etc.)
  • Litigation: seeking out, and funding, well-chosen lawsuits can have influence along a variety of dimensions. Litigation can raise the profile/media attention of an issue; it can result in law-altering decisions (such as the recent striking down of DOMA); and it can therefore serve as a source of leverage when negotiating with rulemakers (more on this in the early parts of my conversation with Steven Teles).
  • Influencing media: some of the above activities can be influential via their impact on media (which in turn can change public opinion and how public opinion is perceived by lawmakers). There are also organizations, such as Accuracy in Media and Media Matters, that explicitly focus on influencing media coverage.
  • Long-term investment in networks and platforms to bring together, and strengthen, people of particular ideological orientations (as opposed to targeting particular issues). Steven Teles has emphasized this sort of work in his writing and in his conversation with me. Examples include The Federalist Society and ALEC (and a younger organization, ALICE, intended to serve as a liberal counterpart to ALEC).
  • Direct effort to influence elections is – generally speaking – the most heavily regulated and restricted of the activities on this list. Assuming complete flexibility of structure (i.e., no commitment to working through 501(c)(3) organizations or to getting tax deductions) a funder can contribute limited amounts to individuals’ campaigns and to PACs, and can spend larger amounts on independent groups that may supplement campaigns’ work with their own advertising, get-out-the-vote campaigns, polling, media targeting, etc.

I believe that the connection between money and policy change is quite complex, though also quite strong. The strongest influence on a given politician isn’t necessarily (though it can be) a direct offer of money, or perceived public opinion among constituents. Politicians may also be influenced by how much they perceive constituents as caring about an issue (a small number of constituents who care deeply can be far more consequential than a larger number who care slightly, which is why relatively small numbers of letters and phone calls may be influential); they may be influenced by a desire to be in the good graces of particular interest groups, which can provide support in many ways (money, volunteers, help with how a politician is perceived broadly); they may be influenced by their desire to do what’s right according to their ideology. Money may be impactful through any of these pathways: it can help to organize and embolden passionate constituents, it can fund analysis that affects interest groups’ stands on issues, and it can affect (through a variety of mechanisms) what lawmakers perceive as the right thing to do. In many cases, the effect of money may be highly indirect and long-term, but very strong nonetheless.

The risks of adversarial philanthropy

I’ve long been wary of giving opportunities that involve taking on other people as adversaries, and I think a lot of our audience shares my misgivings. One reason for this is that projects with active, intelligent opposition are likely to have more difficult – and unpredictable – paths to success. Another reason is the potential difficulty of being on the right side. When working on controversial issues, one can easily be blinded by personal biases and ideology into believing a particular change is more desirable than it is, with the result that even a “success” can end up doing more harm than good.

While I still have these concerns, I’ve become more positive on the idea of philanthropic involvement in politics. Learning about the activities described above has highlighted the importance of natural asymmetries of money and organization between different sides on a policy issue. The side favored by a consensus of informed humanitarians can be significantly (and importantly) under-resourced relative to the side with a structural advantage.

One particularly vivid-seeming example is that of agricultural subsidies in the U.S. I don’t know of a conceptual or empirical public-welfare-based argument for many such subsidies (and they have been criticized as hurting the global poor as well). But because (as I informally understand it) the group that benefits from them (agricultural industry) is well-organized and -funded while the group that pays for them (the citizenry as a whole) is diffuse, such subsidies persist. Immigration policy involves a different kind of imbalance: many of those who would most benefit from less restrictive immigration policies are non-U.S. citizens, and so have no voice in the matter. A third way in which a structural imbalance can play out is when the inherent difficulty of changing the status quo (discussed in Lobbying and Policy Change) prevents important and needed changes from taking place.

At its best, I believe that policy-oriented philanthropy can provide organization and focus to issues whose advocates would otherwise be too diffuse or disempowered to make a difference. While doing so will always have risks – and the more controversial the topic, the riskier – I think it would be a mistake to let these risks take one of the most potentially powerful, versatile, leveraged tools of philanthropy off the table.