The GiveWell Blog

The role of philanthropic funding in politics

[Added August 27, 2014: GiveWell Labs is now known as the Open Philanthropy Project.]

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, 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.


  • Joe D. on October 30, 2013 at 4:38 pm said:

    For me, the importance of individual choice means that philanthropy directed toward lobbying to increase foreign aid is not as ethically meritorious as philanthropy that gives directly. I give money to save lives in Africa because it is my choice to do the most good that I can do with my money. By contrast, the legislative process would force every American taxpayer to do so regardless of her individual choice.

  • The activities you lay out are interesting and seem that they could affect public policy. The relationship between actions and results are complex and can be unintended.

  • Alexander Gabriel on November 4, 2013 at 10:55 am said:

    I’m glad to see you writing about this. Political advocacy seems a very confusing topic but if I were giving away money it would undoubtedly get a large fraction.

  • Fascinating stuff. Would love to see you guys taking on agricultural subsidies.

  • Jeff Stanger on November 11, 2013 at 1:17 pm said:

    Interesting, and something central to my work at CDI, particularly how the sector informs public policy through funding and disseminating research, analysis and expertise (see your Think Tanks section).

    There is one thing I think you left out though — Becoming the Media. Why only “influencing media?” The media environment, technological environment, information environment have swung a door of opportunity wide open. Philanthropies interested in policy impact and informing the public debate on their issues ought to be engaging in much bolder communication initiatives that look more like actual “media” — positioned and branded for maximum reach, commercial-grade digital production value, good storytelling, etc. This is far different than funding studies at think tanks and having conferences about them. It’s far different than putting out expert reports and trying to get old media to cover them. It speaks directly to audiences; it essentially replaces the public information function of old commercial media.

    I don’t see much of this at all.

    The real head-scratcher is that foundations and those they fund *have* all the information, the evidence, the expertise — it’s just packaged and communicated the old-fashioned way, through filters, in outdated formats.

    I think Omidyar has probably figured this out. He could have funded $250 million worth of expert studies and press outreach to call attention to them. He didn’t. When is the whole sector going to get on board?

  • Colin Rust on November 17, 2013 at 9:07 pm said:

    On Jeff Stanger‘s point, non-profit media are an interesting area for philanthropy. He mentions Pierre Omidyar’s recent announcement that he is funding $250 million for a media venture centered on investigative journalism, in particular hiring Glenn Greenwald from The Guardian (also a non-profit). In a roughly similar vein, ProPublica has been operating for a number of years.

    But I think of starting a non-profit media venture as about trying to broadly improve public information and discourse. That’s a little different from “white hat” lobbying and advocacy, etc. which is normally focussed on more specific goals.


    As an aside, I think white hat lobbying should in principle be more efficient — get more bang for the buck — that traditional corporate lobbying for specific interests. Maybe I’m naive, but it should be easier to convince Congressmen to do X in the public interest than not-X to favor some special interest, if the dollars are held constant (at least if the public interest coincides with the interest of his/her constituents).

  • Thanks for the comments, all.

    I agree that “becoming the media” can be an interesting approach. I also agree that – all else equal – “white hat lobbying” is likely to be more effective dollar-for-dollar (but the dollars are rarely equal).

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