One afternoon in the Fall of 2004, the president of Susie Buffett’s Early Childhood Fund sat down with Dr. Joan Lombardi (a well-known expert on child development and social policy and formerly the first director of the Child Care Bureau) to talk about an issue they had been discussing more and more. State policy advocacy is essential to the success of numerous early childhood supports, but advocates working in states often lacked the support and capacity they needed. And on the philanthropy side, investors lacked a streamlined way to support advocacy strategically in multiple states.
“State legislatures and governors’ offices have an enormous ability to scale and strengthen the systems that influence outcomes for children,” says Jessie Rasmussen, the current President of the Buffett Early Childhood Fund, “and the state agency landscape offers this powerful ability to coordinate what is diffused across health, education, and economic departments. But there was no bold, multi-investor strategy pursuing this huge potential to change families’ futures.”
So the Fund, along with Irving Harris Foundation, George Kaiser Family Foundation, and the J.B. and M.K. Pritzker Family Foundation, founded the Birth to Five Policy Alliance—with Lombardi at the helm—to support policy advocacy at the state level. Fast forward almost twenty years and that alliance, now called the Alliance for Early Success, supports and connects advocates in all 50 states as they log win after win in maternal and child health, early care and education, and economic stability for young children and their families. More than a dozen major foundations invest in the Alliance’s pooled fund, and new ones continue to join. The Alliance reports four new investors in just the past year.
“While I believe many investors still think policy advocacy is ‘too political’ for foundations, more and more now see state-level policy advocacy as an essential component of a high-impact strategy,” Rasmussen says. “They’re seeing how funding the pursuit of permanent stable, state support leads to funding that will long outlast private donations to programs.”
Connie Ballmer agrees. As co-founder of Ballmer Group Philanthropy along with her husband Steve, she says systems change is essential to expanding the economic mobility of children and their families. “Systems don’t typically change on their own. For almost a decade, we have been investing in advocacy, especially at the state level, that is crucial to systems transformation in support of children and their families.”
Ashley Beckner, a venture partner at Imaginable Futures, adds that states have long been innovation labs where policies are tested, measured, improved, and scaled. “With stalled action at the federal level, states have led the way on passing and implementing family-friendly policies, such as paid leave and paid sick days.”
A Lever for “Breakthrough”
“A handful of years ago, only 4 percent of philanthropic funding was going to advocacy, but we are seeing and speaking with more and more funders who are funding advocacy given the distinct impact,” says Debby Bielak, a partner at The Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit that consults with numerous social change organizations, philanthropists, and impact investors. Bridgespan undertook a 2016 study of 15 successful “breakthrough” initiatives supported by philanthropy and found that 80 percent of those philanthropic efforts required changes to government funding, policies, and actions.
“Sustained unrestricted grants from the Alliance's pooled fund help advocates break through,” says Helene Stebbins, Executive Director of the Alliance for Early Success, “because the funding comes with crucial connectivity. Investments passed through the pooled fund come to the grantee with extensive additional support—advice from national experts, access to peers in similar states, dedicated staff who can respond to their questions and challenge them… and frankly the inspiration that comes from feeling not so alone in this hard work.”
Alliance advocacy grantees from states across the country participate in communities of practice, convene in impromptu huddles to discuss emerging policy developments, and crowdsource questions with other experts that the Alliance curates in its network. (They call it the “Alliance Effect.”)
In its consulting work with social sector funders who want to maximize their impact, Bridgespan likes to explore all the ways an investor can deploy capital—from funding high-impact direct service programs to investing in endowments to funding individual advocacy organizations—and then explore the potential outcomes for these different pathways. Direct service programs can have a large impact on the lives of the individuals they serve, while a set of advocacy and influence approaches can potentially shift the root causes of inequities or address them systemically.
“We’re seeing a growing recognition of the importance, and frankly the high ROI, of investing in advocacy,” Bridgespan’s Bielak says. “In our research briefs, we have been urging donors to re-examine risk. We acknowledge that some may have concerns that investing in advocacy is risky but often, the greatest risk is not investing in advocacy—supporting movement leaders and organizations that are actively tackling systemic injustice—and facing well-funded opposition.”
Advocacy investors say other often-misperceived obstacles are tax and legal restrictions. “Some funders aren’t comfortable enough with their knowledge of the tax code and I suspect fear they could make a misstep and lose their 501(c)3 status,” Rasmussen says. “But when you take a look at all the high-potential activities that are clearly permissible, it starts to look like the misstep might be leaving policy advocacy out of the equation.” Bielak agrees. “When donors learn what they can do they are surprised. For example, 501c3s can spend a certain amount on activities people often think are not allowed, such as lobbying.”
Investing in Equity
For many policy advocacy investors, policy change is a systems-change antiracist strategy.
“Structural racism is built into all of the systems that govern our lives, and it makes it harder for people of color to move up the economic ladder,” says Connie Balmer. “We support organizations that are advocating to change these systems to eradicate structural racism, so that every child in our country has access to economic opportunity.”
At the Alliance, equity plays a central role. “The Alliance’s theory of change recognizes that racial equity isn’t part of the work, it is the work,” Stebbins says. Grantees of the Alliance pooled fund not only receive core-operating grants to pursue evidence-based state policies that can eliminate outcomes disparities, they also receive supports on how they advocate. They learn how to operationalize equity in their organizations. They explore the importance of disaggregating data. And their emerging leaders of color can participate in a network developed to strengthen the diversity of the advocacy leadership pipeline.
“If we collectively seek equitable societies with equal rights and opportunities, it will require working at both the programmatic level as well as influencing the policies and norms that frame our lives,” says Bridgespan’s Bielak. “As such, to see long term transformative shifts in our systems, it is important for donors and philanthropists to consider their role in policy and advocacy.”
The Buffett Early Childhood Fund’s Jessie Rasmussen agrees, and thinks the current climate calls for more investors to add advocacy to their portfolios. “Many foundations with early childhood priorities continue the tradition of shying away from state policy advocacy, even though such advocacy is an essential tool to the success of these grantmakers’ missions,” she says. “The bets we’ve made on early childhood policy advocacy have more than paid off—and continue to deliver outcomes far beyond our investments.”