For the last few weeks, I have been thinking about a piece by Dr. Robert Ross, the President and CEO of The California Endowment, reflecting on the role of philanthropy in civic engagement. Specifically, he discussed the debate about Indiana’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and whether and how it could be used to discriminate against lesbians and gays. He was amazed how “[v]oices from nearly all corners of society—business, labor, religion, academia, athletics, government, even comedy” participated in a “defining exchange about our core values as a nation….” and concluded that philanthropy can learn a great deal from this exchange.
In thinking how philanthropy can be most effective in influencing public policy, Ross admits that “foundations often worry about overstepping limitations related to [their] tax status.” At Bolder Advocacy, we hear this concern all of the time. However, as Ross rightly notes, “the legal limits on lobbying and partisan and political activities do not prohibit foundations from exercising our free speech about a policy like Indiana’s…” In fact, foundations can lend their expertise to the policy debate in perfectly permissible ways.
While foundations cannot support or oppose candidates for public office, and private foundations cannot lobby for or against specific legislation, they may advocate on issues they care about. In fact, most efforts to discuss equity and social justice issues and implications of laws and government policies do not constitute lobbying. Foundations can, among many other activities:
- Conduct public education campaigns about the need to end discrimination in employment and housing that do not include calls to action (PDF) or mention specific legislation (PDF)
- Convene nonprofits and decision-makers to discuss a broad topic, such as marriage equality
- Build relationships with legislators or help grantees build and sustain these relationships
- Educate legislators about a broad range of issues, such as the need for safe schools, transgender justice, and immigration reform, without referencing a specific legislative proposal
- Meet with legislators to discuss the scope and impact of the foundation’s work
- Train grantees on how to lobby
- Influence school board policies or the policies of any other “special purpose body” that has limited jurisdiction (e.g., housing authorities, sewer and water districts, zoning boards, and other similar federal, state, or local body)
Philanthropy has an important place at the policy table and as the rapid developments in Indiana demonstrated, it’s important to build an advocacy infrastructure in advance of and know what you can do during a sudden policy debate. The law allows foundations to do much more they think—and Alliance for Justice’s Bolder Advocacy initiative has lots of resources to help foundations understand what’s possible.