Philanthropy’s Most Effective Tool—Why Not Use It?


Has any philanthropic leader ever said it more clearly?

“Foundation-supported advocacy can counter the immense power of corporations.”

That’s from Paul Brest, the former president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, writing recently in the Boston Review for a forum on philanthropy.

By providing voices to counter  those raised by the affluent and powerful and their organizations, foundation support for advocacy can advance pluralism, argues Brest. Merriam Webster reminds us that Pluralism refers to “a state of society in which members of diverse ethnic, racial, religious, or social groups maintain and develop their traditional culture or special interest within the confines of a common civilization.”

Brest supplies several examples—from both conservative and liberal movements—of foundation support for successful advocacy campaigns:

“Examples include advocacy for policies to reduce smoking and obesity and to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions in the face of pervasive advertising and forceful lobbying by the cigarette, fast food, soft drink, coal, oil, and utilities industries. This is advocacy in support of pluralism. So too is foundation-supported advocacy for and against school choice, the right to bear arms, legal abortion, and, the rights of various minorities.”

Philanthropists so often positively commit themselves to helping the poor, less powerful, discriminated against—what the social work organizations I used to represent called “vulnerable populations.”  One has to wonder why, when advocacy works so well to make gains or stop regression for these populations, it shouldn’t be the first tool used by these committed foundations?

We know the law allows for all kinds of foundation support for nonprofit advocacy, as Brest explains:

“[I]f foundations follow the proper legal procedures, they can make grants that support a broad range of advocacy.”

And we know that foundations that support advocacy believe it to be a powerful tool for making an impact. Per Brest:

“Indeed, an increasing number of organizations trying to address poverty and other traditional charitable objectives have found advocacy to be an important means for achieving their goals.”

Foundations should heed Brest’s advice. No longer should they hide behind their legal concerns and fears about being too “out there” in promoting certain values by supporting advocacy and community organizing. As Emmett Carson, Silicon Valley Community Foundation president pointed out many years ago, all foundation grantmaking is value-laden.

Follow Sue Hoechstetter on Twitter @SueAFJ1