Policy Influence: What Foundations are Doing and Why

Foundations’ engagement in public policy has contributed to advances in society in areas from civil rights to consumer protections to public health. At the same time, and with greater intensity in recent years, the role of philanthropy in influencing policy has been the subject of scrutiny. 

How many foundations are working to influence policy? What are they seeking to accomplish through this work? What do they find to be the best approaches and biggest challenges to achieving those goals?

To find answers to these questions (and more), the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) studied the perspectives of foundation leaders across the country. Today we are sharing what we learned in a new report, Policy Influence: What Foundations are Doing and Why.

Findings in the report are based on survey responses from 214 foundation leaders and in-depth interviews with CEOs and staff at 43 foundations, as well as survey responses from 419 nonprofit leaders on CEP’s Grantee Voice panel.

What did we learn? Among a number of findings, the data shows that:Ninety percent of foundation leaders report that their foundation seeks to influence public policy, with education and health being the top two issue areas in which foundations pursue this work.Nearly three-fourths of foundation leaders report having increased their foundation’s policy efforts over the past three years, but the majority still describe their policy engagement as limited in terms of dollars, grants, and time.Working with others is the top recommendation foundation leaders give to those who are considering engaging in policy work, and 80 percent report they are part of collaborative efforts to influence policy.Only 45 percent of foundation leaders say their board is completely supportive of their foundation’s efforts to influence policy.These are just a few of the data points shared in Policy Influence. CEP’s hope is that the findings in this study will help foundations approach their efforts to influence public policy more thoughtfully — which is all the more important right now given the COVID-19 pandemic and accompanying economic crisis.

The S.D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Brainerd Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and Wilburforce Foundation provided funding to support this research.

We invite you to download and read the publication in full, and as always, we welcome your thoughts and reactions.