The GiveWell Blog

How to approach policy-oriented philanthropy

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

As noted previously, we’ve been working on improving our broad understanding of the role that philanthropy can play in influencing and informing policy. One of my goals has been to hear different perspectives on how one should (for maximum effectiveness) approach policy-oriented philanthropy: what sorts of issues one should look to get involved in vs. steer clear of, what sorts of organizations make the most sense to support, etc.

This post lays out:

  • Several different visions of policy-oriented philanthropy and what it does best, based on conversations that we’ve had.
  • Some preliminary impressions of which (mostly U.S. federal) policy issues might be promising areas for a new philanthropist.
  • Key questions we still have on this front, and plans for moving forward from here.

Different visions of policy-oriented philanthropy
An essay by Steven Teles and Mark Schmitt (also discussed in the previous post on this topic) lays out one vision of policy-oriented philanthropy: that of engaging in very long-time-horizon (a decade or more) efforts to build the capacity of relevant organizations, so that when the right political moment comes – which can happen at unpredictable times and in unpredictable ways – the stage is set for maximal positive change. This view was reinforced by our conversations with the two authors as well as with Frank Baumgartner.

Under this view, it seems that one should not put too much weight on the apparent “political tractability” of the change one seeks. Political tractability can change quickly and unpredictably. Moreover, while a particular desired policy change might be unrealistic, there may be as-yet-unforeseen opportunities to improve dramatically on the status quo by advocating for subtle changes in legislation, stopping problematic new legislation, etc. Thus, rather than ask “Is the change I want feasible?” a philanthropist should ask “Can I strengthen the groups that share my general perspective?”

Broadly speaking, this vision seems to imply that a philanthropist should seek out constellations of interest groups that “should have more capacity than they do,” given the importance of the issues they work on. And since dramatic victories can be won even when the victors have far fewer resources than their adversaries (a point made by Prof. Baumgartner), one should not necessarily steer clear of issues with strong opposition; if anything, one should steer clear of areas in which the side one agrees with is already well-developed and well-resourced, leaving less room for further philanthropic impact.

One could apply this sort of thinking to choosing between issue areas (for example, tax policy vs. drug policy), or – as Prof. Teles encouraged us to do – one could focus more broadly on strengthening the infrastructure around one’s preferred general ideology. (Prof. Teles has written about the role of conservative foundations in strengthening the voice of conservatism in American policy in general.)

I think this viewpoint has much to recommend it: long-term building of interest groups’ capacity may be something that philanthropy is uniquely well-suited to do, and the case studies that have been cited make it clear how this approach might pay greater dividends than shorter-term attempts to influence debates whose interest groups and other parameters are already well-defined. With that said:

  • We haven’t vetted the case studies cited in support of this viewpoint.
  • We believe that very-long-term planning is inherently more difficult than shorter-term planning, and runs the risk that the change one achieves is not the change one hoped for. There are certainly cases in which I could imagine strengthening the capacity of interest groups that – today – agree with me on the desired direction of desired policy change, but will disagree with me by the time they have an impact.

A couple of possible alternative approaches:

  • One could seek out issues in which it looks like a change (from the status quo) is already imminent, and hope that these provide more latitude to influence exactly what sort of change takes place. One person I spoke with (notes forthcoming) advocated taking on issues such as drug policy, criminal justice policy, and policies relating to NSA surveillance: in all three of these cases (he argued), the status quo appears largely untenable and vulnerable to change, and some extra funding could cause a “tipping point” – or change the shape of the solution that is eventually settled on. (Good examples of the latter goal can be seen in our conversation with Mark Kleiman, who feels – on both drug policy and criminal justice policy – that there are multiple paths to change, some better than others.)
  • One could put very high weight on political tractability, seeking out issues – even if they aren’t the most important issues, in isolation – where one can expect concrete results on a relatively short time frame. One funder that may be following a strategy along these lines is Pew Charitable Trusts, whose document on evaluation presents a very different picture from the essay linked above from Teles and Schmitt – implying a general expectation of tangible results on ~5-year time frames.

The first approach in this section is the one we’ve seen most commonly and articulately advocated, though we continue to search for “policy generalists” who can engage with this question and provide more perspectives.

Preliminary impressions of several issues
As part of our initial explorations, we’ve asked around about issues that might represent particularly good opportunities for a philanthropist to accomplish good. Below, we give overall impressions on several issues (not all of which we consider promising) based mostly on conversations with Steven Teles, Mark Schmitt, Gara LaMarche, Frank Baumgartner and Dylan Matthews (as well as informal impressions and observations). As with previous posts, “success” refers to impact on policy and not necessarily to positive social impact, and we don’t necessarily have confident views on the “right side” of the issues below; we report on issues that have been cited to us as opportunities for positive social impact, and focus on the change that advocates for working on these issues have supported.

  • Immigration policy. The ongoing debate in Congress over immigration reform has attracted significant attention and funding on both sides of the issue; the Alliance for Citizenship is a coalition of pro-reform groups. With that said, (a) there is relatively little in the way of groups dedicated to labor mobility as opposed to questions around e.g. the path to citizenship; (b) if an immigration reform bill passes, it is likely to leave a lot of latitude to the rulemaking process, and there may be opportunities for impact via lobbying rulemakers.
  • Criminal justice reform. This cause has been highlighted to us as an unusually tractable political cause, in which results at a sub-federal level might be expected within a few years (more at our conversation with Steven Teles). While there are several funders with substantial budgets in this area, there appears to be very little in the way of funding and infrastructure around the sorts of ideas promoted by Mark Kleiman, which we find intriguing.
  • Drug policy. The momentum (in terms of public opinion and recent state-level policy changes) around relaxing restrictions on marijuana may create opportunities for impact, either in terms of accelerating the relaxation of restrictions or affecting the specifics of new regulatory frameworks.
  • Climate change mitigation. It’s clear (see our writeup on climate change philanthropy) that there is a relatively large amount of philanthropic involvement in this issue already. Some expressed the view that it is still a promising area for a new philanthropist because of weaknesses in the current players’ strategies (some of which were alleged in a paper by Theda Skocpol that we’ve been pointed to more than once).
  • Factory farming. It seems that animal welfare-oriented groups in general are well-funded and -organized, though it also appears that they do not focus on factory farming. Steven Teles noted that working to change the discussion around factory farms’ general image and influence could have multiple benefits (for example, it could also lead to progress on the issue of farm subsidies, which have been criticized as harming the global poor).
  • Foreign aid. The “generalists” we spoke to didn’t seem familiar with this area. Center for Global Development representatives expressed mixed feelings on whether there is room for more philanthropy on this front.
  • Intellectual property reform. Several people we spoke to felt that current intellectual property protections are too restrictive, that this is an important issue, and that there is relatively little in the way of funding and interest groups pushing for them to be less so.
  • Structural political reform, including addressing the role of money in politics. We got mixed messages on the promise of this topic. Some of the people we spoke to were highly skeptical about the prospects for creating much positive change through campaign finance reform; Steven Teles argued that well-organized, well-funded groups are likely to be disproportionately influential regardless of finance regulations, a view that makes sense in context of our previous observations on the role of money in politics. He was more enthusiastic about the goal of “improving quality of governance” (by e.g. improving the quality of regulatory agencies’ staffs), and others (e.g., Gara LaMarche) expressed somewhat more optimism about finance reform.
  • Undermining “rent-seeking” policy. This is a very broad category of mostly sub-federal-level policy changes that Steven Teles expressed enthusiasm for: loosening government restrictions on matters such as who can act as dentists, taxi drivers, etc. Prof. Teles gave us the impression that there are currently fairly strong interest groups defending such restrictions, and very little in the way of groups working against them, since the benefits of freer competition would be highly diffuse (there’s no particular interest group that would benefit as strongly from them as the pro-restriction interest groups suffer from them).
  • Science funding. Government funding of scientific research has broad bipartisan support, and there are a fair number of interest groups representing universities and patients associated with particular diseases and conditions. The budget of the National Institutes of Health roughly doubled under Bill Clinton but has been fairly stagnant since.
  • Marriage equality. The defeat of DOMA is part of one of the great recent success stories of policy-oriented philanthropy. Success in securing equivalent marriage rights for homosexuals and heterosexuals is not complete, but given the state of public opinion and other factors, it looks likely that it will become so.

Our plans going forward
So far, we haven’t found a large number of people who will engage broadly (and knowledgeably) with us about the role of philanthropy in influencing policy, and about the relative merits of different issues as laid out above. We plan to continue looking for such people, largely via referrals, and to continue publishing conversation notes from our discussions with them. We’ve also been given a significant amount of recommended reading that we plan to explore to further develop our basic feel for policymaking and philanthropy’s potential role in it.

In particular, we hope to gain more perspectives and information on a couple of key questions:

  • What’s the best time frame for a policy-oriented philanthropist to have in mind? Does the potentially magnified impact of very long-term capacity-building make up for the higher level of uncertainty?
  • To what extent it is important for us to seek out grantees that are highly aligned with our views, as opposed to roughly aligned (e.g., on the same side of the status quo?) We could imagine doing net harm to our goals by building the capacity of groups that are aligned with us in today’s environment, but not tomorrow’s. On the other hand, the higher degree of alignment we seek, the fewer options we can expect to have.
  • What information is available about the track record of policy-oriented philanthropy?
  • What issues are most promising for a new philanthropist to enter, and why?

In the meantime, however, we plan to move forward with investigations of specific issues that have been highlighted as promising in our investigations so far. We feel that we may learn more about the above questions via issue-specific investigations and conversations than via more general ones.