Krystian Seibert lays out three compelling reasons why philanthropists should seek to influence public policy.

In the past, there was a certain reticence within philanthropy when it came to funding advocacy – which involves working to achieve change in a particular cause area by seeking to influence public policy.

But this has changed.

The law around advocacy is now clear – advocacy undertaken to further a charitable purpose is itself charitable, and philanthropic organisations can certainly fund it.

Foundations are also looking at ways to enhance their impact, rethinking their strategies and broadening their horizons.

Funding advocacy can be a highly effective way at achieving systemic change, so it’s no surprise that philanthropy’s interest in it is on the rise.

Philanthropy Australia’s Philanthropy Meets Parliament Summit, held in Canberra in September last year, had a strong emphasis on the importance of philanthropy funding advocacy.

Participants were fortunate to hear from Daniel Lee, the Executive Director of the Levi Strauss Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the apparel company. Daniel is a passionate ‘advocate for advocacy’ and he put forward a compelling and evidence-based case for why philanthropy needs to fund it.

Philanthropy Australia has continued to focus on this theme in 2018, and in February it launched its new report, The Power of Advocacy.

The report is a useful resource for philanthropy and not-for-profits, and does five things:

  • Explains what advocacy is
  • Outlines the rationale for philanthropy funding advocacy
  • Sets out the law regarding funding advocacy
  • Addresses some misconceptions
  • Presents eight case studies of philanthropy funding advocacy.

Our laws and policies, corporate behaviours and public sentiments shape social and environmental outcomes. It follows that if we want to achieve systemic change, those laws and policies, behaviours and sentiments need to be analysed, tested, challenged, and changed. That’s what advocacy seeks to do.

The case studies in the report illustrate how advocacy can be an effective and impactful approach to achieving such systemic change, but I want to focus on the three reasons the report sets out for why philanthropy should fund advocacy.

1. Tackling the Root Causes Rather than Just the Symptoms

Funding advocacy is a strategy that focuses on tackling the root causes of social and environmental challenges, rather than just addressing the symptoms.

Take the example of a factory polluting a river. A lot of money can be spent downriver funding the installation of water filters and treating impacted wildlife. But focusing only on addressing the symptoms and effects of the pollution will be futile if the factory keeps polluting the river. While a response to the immediate needs of distressed wildlife is of course necessary, it would be more effective to address the actual cause of the pollution, thereby finding a long-term solution to this problem. This could involve funding efforts upstream to ensure the factory complies with the law, or if the law doesn’t stop the pollution happening, efforts to change the law.

By tackling the root causes of social and environmental challenges, advocacy can have a broad impact – if the law is changed to stop the factory polluting the river, this may extend to addressing pollution by other factories elsewhere. In this sense, it’s an approach that can provide a high return on the philanthropic dollar.

2. Supporting the Public Interest and Balancing Out Private Interests

The development of public policy in Australia involves a contest between different interests. In this contest, the private interests of particular industries, sectors, businesses, individuals and other groups can often dominate and prevail over the broader public interest.

It is easier to organise smaller groups to advocate for policy positions, and the potential benefits which the adoption of particular policy positions may provide to those groups acts as an incentive for them to organise. It’s often the case that industries or sectors with a few key players can organise more easily to advocate for policy positions that benefit them. But those positions may not benefit the broader community.

On the other hand, it is harder to organise larger groups, such as a significant segment of the public, to advocate for policy positions. While the adoption of a certain policy position may provide large benefits to the broader community, when spread across such a large group the benefits to each individual may be small. Therefore, the incentives for larger groups to organise to advocate for policy positions which are in the broad public interest are diluted and may be insufficient to generate activity and momentum.

Philanthropy plays a key role supporting advocacy in the public interest, balancing out private interests by providing essential resources which can be used to mobilise citizens to take action on important issues. In doing so, it helps invigorate our democracy and ensure that the voices of the broader community, including those at the margins, are heard and given due regard in the development of policy.

3. Enhancing the Impact of ‘On the Ground’ Activities

Many philanthropic organisations fund ‘on the ground’ activities by charities, such as service delivery. Often philanthropy plays a role supporting innovation, for example by funding new approaches to tackling social and environmental challenges.

An outcome of this process can be that new approaches are proven to be more effective than existing approaches. If the learnings from funding ‘on the ground’ activities are not shared and promoted, then this is a missed opportunity to increase the impact of philanthropic support.

In this way, providing funding for policy advocacy to highlight the success of new approaches can complement funding for ‘on the ground activities’. Such funding enables charities to engage with government about their findings in order to influence decision making and promote the adoption of new and more effective approaches more broadly.

Krystian Seibert is an Industry Fellow the Centre for Social Impact at Swinburne University of Technology. He wrote ‘The Power of Advocacy’ report in his previous capacity as the Advocacy & Insight Manager at Philanthroy Australia.

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