Focus areas within the U.S. Policy category:
There are a variety of ways to work toward better policy, some of which we describe in this 2013 blog post. Some activities — in particular, campaigns — seek to capitalize quickly on a political opportunity. Others involve building coalitions, developing workable policy proposals, and refining evidence and arguments, in order to maximize the odds of a favorable policy change if and when political opportunities — which can be difficult to anticipate — arise. In choosing focus areas, we’ve looked for policy causes that combine:
- Importance: How much good could a major policy change accomplish? “Good accomplished” might include economic value created via improved efficiency, transfers to low-income people, improvements in health and reductions in suffering, and more. We don’t believe precise comparisons between different policy causes are feasible, but we’ve tried — by using back-of-the-envelope calculations — to group causes as higher, lower, or medium importance, relatively speaking. [We have not updated these documents regularly — they are intended to provide a snapshot of our thinking at a point in time, and of how we came to the causes we’ve chosen.]
- Neglectedness: Are there important aspects of a cause, or opportunities to make a difference, that receive relatively little attention and support? When investigating a cause, we tend to consider multiple different kinds of activities that might make a difference, looking for major gaps. For example, we believe the cause of Macroeconomic Stabilization Policy is very crowded with academics while being relatively neglected by more advocacy-oriented actors.
- Tractability: How much difference could attempts to improve policy make? In general, we are wary of putting too much emphasis on this criterion, since there are well-known cases in which a political change seemed impossible, then happened rapidly. It can be difficult to anticipate what political opportunities will arise and how long they will last. However, there are some policy issues where we see relatively broad and robust dynamics that make policy change particularly likely — for example, Criminal Justice Reform. In addition, by default we see a cause as more tractable when one can do meaningful work at the state and local levels; some causes (such as Immigration Policy) are relevant only at the federal level, which presents fewer opportunities for progress.
It’s worth noting that on any of these criteria, we can only make relatively rough and high-level distinctions. In general, the causes we’ve prioritized most highly are those that stand out on one of the three dimensions, while being at least as strong on the other two criteria as comparable standouts. (For example, causes that stand out on importance while being at least as neglected and tractable as other causes of comparable importance. We’ve written more about this idea here.)
Currently, our focus areas are:
- Criminal Justice Reform. The United States incarcerates its residents at a higher rate than any other major country. We believe that local, state and federal governments can significantly reduce the use of incarceration and criminalization, averting substantial human and economic costs, while making communities safer. We believe that this issue presents an unusual degree of political opportunity, due to a recent confluence of progressive and conservative interest in reform and the increasing public attention to the problem.
- Farm Animal Welfare. Billions of animals each year are treated cruelly on factory farms. We believe that raising awareness of current practices and pushing for reform could reduce animal suffering by enormous amounts, yet we see relatively little attention on this issue from major animal welfare groups.
- Macroeconomic Stabilization Policy. The recent Great Recession points to the large economic and humanitarian costs of business cycle downswings. We feel that monetary policymakers currently face political pressure to over-emphasize risks of inflation, relative to the suffering and lost output from unemployment. We seek to fund advocacy to emphasize the importance of the latter and research and policy analysis to create better options for fiscal and monetary stabilization policy in the future. To the extent that better stabilization policy is possible, it could carry large humanitarian benefits, and the activities we’re interested in seem to receive little attention from other funders.
- Immigration Policy. We value all lives equally, and we believe that migration can dramatically improve the lives of migrants. We hope to allow more people to be able to move internationally, particularly from lower-income to higher-income countries. We see the potential humanitarian gains from such changes as massive. We see working to allow more future migration broadly, rather than for a specific group (such as high-skill workers), as a relatively neglected space among policy-oriented groups.
- Land Use Reform. Local laws often prohibit the construction of dense new housing, leading to higher housing prices, especially in a few large high-wage metropolitan areas. More permissive policy could contribute to both affordable housing and the continued growth of centers of economic activity. Working toward more permissive policy from a public-interest perspective (as opposed to lobbying for specific developments), appears neglected considering the significant potential benefits.
For more detail on how we chose these focus areas, read about our process.
More on this topic, from the blog
- The Role of Philanthropic Funding in Politics (October 2013). The connection between funding 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. This post laid out multiple ways in which funders might aim to influence policy.
- Open Philanthropy Project Update: U.S. Policy (May 2015). We announced our initial set of focus areas and described the evolution of our thinking on other fronts, such as our interest in being able to work opportunistically across several focus areas.
- As part of our History of Philanthropy project, we have commissioned several case studies on past philanthropic success stories related to influencing policy:
- The Track Record of Policy-Oriented Philanthropy (November 2013). We discussed the questions: (a) “Are there compelling cases in which a major policy change can be partially or fully credited to philanthropic efforts?” (b) “How often have philanthropic efforts succeeded in bringing about change? Often enough to imply a good ‘return on investment?’” Answering these questions reasonably well could require an enormous, long-term effort, and our History of Philanthropy project represents some early work toward this end. This post laid out some initial reasons to believe that policy-oriented philanthropy can be cost-effective.