April 2, 2024

The Bridgespan Group and Civitas Public Affairs Map Paths for Philanthropists to Advance Social Changes in Today's Highly Charged Political Environment

Two new research papers released today by The Bridgespan Group offer insights into how the biggest policy shifts happen in the United States and what advocacy tools are useful in pursuing that change.

BOSTON – April 2, 2024 – Witnessing politically and culturally charged divisions nationally and anticipating November elections in the United States, philanthropists and funders increasingly question how best to advocate for the causes they care about. Two new research papers released today by The Bridgespan Group offer insights into how the biggest policy shifts happen in the United States and what advocacy tools are useful in pursuing that change.

Betting on the Tortoise: Policy Incrementalism and How Strategic, Sustained Investment in Small Steps Can Achieve Big Impact examines 10 of the biggest national policy advances in the United States, identifying four common elements those movements shared regardless of their ideological leaning. Co-authored by The Bridgespan Group and Civitas Public Affairs Group, it demonstrates how steady, incremental policy change efforts that often play out in states, supported by consistent philanthropic investment, have led to major U.S. policy shifts over time. That kind of change may be more possible than widely appreciated, the paper suggests.

Using All the Tools in the Toolkit: Funding Advocacy for Social Change, authored by Bridgespan experts, explains how funders can leverage the full range of advocacy activities from education to lobbying to political activities based on the policy win and other changes they seek to achieve and their own risk tolerance. Different tax-exempt legal structures – 501(c)(3) religious, charitable, scientific, or educational organizations (c3s); 501(c)(4) social welfare organizations (c4s); and 527 political groups (527s) – are needed to carry out different kinds of advocacy.

“The temperature of rhetoric and social media-fueled tribalism can obscure the fact that political success and policy change are not the same. Increasingly, they have distinct paths and pace,” said Bridgespan Managing Partner William Foster. “In this climate, it can be hard for funders to recognize that the often quiet and always persistent work of successful advocacy has reshaped the policy landscape. Incremental progress can cumulate in significant achievement, and sustained philanthropic investment often fuels the organizations that build the broad support needed to achieve landmark victories.”

In the case of marriage equality, one of the movements that Bridgespan studied, 88 smaller policy victories, at least 23 major setbacks, and 22 years of disciplined work preceded the Supreme Court ruling outlawing same-sex marriage bans by states, including 12 years of work by an intermediary organization purpose-built to push the policy across the finish line. Marriage for same-sex couples was legal in 37 states before it became the law of the land.

A sustained approach that typically was not linear marked the 10 major policy advances studied, with the defining moment coming after at least 40 smaller wins over 25 to 30 years. Those movements shared four prominent elements:

  • Multiple battlefields with the potential for wins – Social movement-driven policy change almost never starts in Washington. It usually starts locally or at the state level.
  • Policy change follows narrative change – Effective narratives reframe otherwise frozen positions, create meaningful connections across differences, appeal to strong majorities within communities, move us to be more empathetic, and galvanize people around what is possible.
  • Successful movements embrace unlikely allies – Successful coalitions scramble fixed lines of conflict, enabling progress on divisive issues.
  • Intermediary organizations supercharge movements – Groups that recognize the value of incremental wins in reaching a bold outcome and have a single-minded focus on executing a multi-year strategy to achieve those wins have proven vital.

“Every social movement is different, but those that win have certain key things in common. They’re opportunistically working to demonstrate proof of concept, consistently enlisting new allies, connecting with people’s hearts and minds, and seeking to build momentum every day. Making real change in this country is never inevitable, but it is certainly not impossible,” said Marc Solomon, partner at Civitas Public Affairs Group and a key strategist in the campaign to win marriage equality nationwide. Bridgespan’s Foster, Eric Chen and Zach Slobig authored Betting on the Tortoise with Solomon.

The funders committed to policy work interviewed share at least one core belief: In terms of return on investment, policy change delivers the biggest bang for the buck. Yet less than 5 percent of philanthropy’s “big bets”—the largest and most influential gifts to social change—goes to policy work. Meanwhile, giving to electoral politics has tripled over 20 years.

Using All the Tools in the Toolkit synthesizes recommendations from funders and experts on why and how to fund advocacy to make progress on the issues they care about in ways that work for funders.

Influencing the political system requires robust advocacy including voter education, lobbying, and an engaged, invested electorate. Efforts that move beyond education require resources beyond typical c3 funding to include c4s and 527s.

“The most effective funders start with two questions: What’s the world I’m hoping to help build and what are activities and mechanisms available to me to get there?” said Bridgespan Partner Debby Bielak, who authored the paper with Liz Jain, Mahdi Fariss, Indu Pereira, and Zach Slobig. “We are seeing a rise in funders who recognize that impact at scale on the issues they care about requires policy and systems changes. They are considering whether and how to invest in new types of organizations and advocacy efforts.”

The article compares funding different activities using multiple tax-exempt structures to having a diverse investment portfolio and approaches. Many of those interviewed noted the value of an integrated strategy across c3s, c4s and 527s that satisfies funders’ goals and values. This includes trusting grantees to use c3 dollars to do limited lobbying as allowed, creating the legal structure to fund c4 and 527 activities as necessary, giving through intermediary funding organizations, collaborating with funders or experts that share goals, and giving directly to c4s and 527s (starting those affiliated with familiar c3s).

Based on interviews with more than 30 leaders in philanthropy and advocacy, Bridgespan offers four key suggestions to build advocacy efforts:

  • Consider opportunities to partner along issues, not party lines to build broad coalitions in service of powerful solutions.
  • Fund at levels of government needed to accomplish your goals. There are opportunities for transformative impact that require careful and targeted investment across the country, at all levels of government.
  • Look to organizations going beyond the norm, including those that look beyond presidential, congressional, gubernatorial, and mayoral races, and those that engage “low propensity” voters—disproportionately people of color.
  • Give early and stay the course. Sustained funding over the long term not just in the months prior to an election is critical to winning.

About The Bridgespan Group
The Bridgespan Group (www.bridgespan.org) is a global nonprofit that collaborates with social change organizations, philanthropists, and impact investors to make the world more equitable and just. Bridgespan’s services include strategy consulting and advising, sourcing and diligence, and leadership team support. We take what we learn from this work and build on it with original research, identifying best practices and innovative ideas to share with the social sector. We work from locations in Boston, Johannesburg, Mumbai, New York, San Francisco, Singapore, and Washington, DC.

About Civitas Public Affairs
Civitas works with leaders from across the political spectrum to build and execute bold advocacy initiatives. We support the country's leading philanthropists, thought leaders, not-for-profits, and centers of influence in shaping public policy at the local, state, and federal levels.

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The Bridgespan Group would like to thank the JPB Foundation for its generous and ongoing support of our knowledge creation and sharing work.