Learning Grants in Policy Advocacy

One of our long-term goals is to learn about policy advocacy—a common form of activity supported by philanthropy. Funding advocacy seems more complicated, riskier and potentially more controversial than giving to support the delivery of cheap, proven interventions such as bednets, vaccines or cash transfers to poor people in developing countries. Yet many of the largest foundations and funders whose work we find most interesting support policy advocacy. Given the influence of public policy on people’s lives and the magnitude of government spending worldwide, advocacy could be among the most leveraged philanthropic activities. So we’re taking steps to learn about how policy advocacy works and giving opportunities in this realm.

Learning Grants

Right now, we know relatively little about how philanthropy influences policy. So in 2012, we made a few “learning grants” in policy advocacy, in support of causes we find compelling — drug policy reform and marriage equality — as a way to start learning about what advocacy organizations do, what makes them effective and how to evaluate their impact.

By learning grants, we mean grants made after undertaking basic but not extensive due diligence to organizations working on causes we find promising, in the hopes of learning more post-grant.

Why give grants in order to learn? A lot of the most valuable knowledge is informal (i.e. not easily captured by reviewing documents) and best captured by spending time talking to the people involved. We’ve found that it’s easier to have these conversations when we're able to approach people as supporters. The organizations we’ve supported to date have been extremely open and accessible to us. Our grants show that we're serious about a cause and that talking to us is worthwhile. Experienced staff at other major foundations also have encouraged us to make learning grants for this reason.

We decided to start with drug policy reform and marriage equality for a few reasons. First off, we are interested in these causes and see great potential for improving lives by working on them. Both offered timely learning opportunities, with multiple initiatives for marijuana legalization and marriage equality appearing on state ballots in November 2012. Lastly, we already had strong access to organizations and funders working in these fields. Throughout this post we share our impressions about why these causes are promising, though we also recognize that we still have a lot to learn.

In addition to these learning grants, we’re working with GiveWell to investigate other promising policy-related causes.

Drug Policy Reform

Broadly speaking, the goal of organizations working on this cause is to change drug-related policies in the U.S. and abroad to be less punitive, more rational and evidenced-based, and more focused on improving public health and respecting personal freedom. We think the effects of reforming drug policy and increasing access to treatment for drug abusers — e.g. reducing incarceration, curbing drug abuse, and reducing violence and crime associated with drug sales and trafficking — could be hugely impactful.

Other factors that make this cause promising: There seems to be growing support for drug policy reform. Yet the movement is still relatively nascent and underfunded, possibly because the cause traditionally has been considered taboo. It’s also an area in which the central questions — e.g. what are the best ways to reduce drug-related crime, drug abuse and addiction? — can be studied and meaningful evidence can be generated to inform policymaking. (However, our impression is that there’s currently relatively little high-quality evidence on these issues.)

We made our first learning grant in drug policy reform to the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), a nonprofit which promotes policies aimed at reducing the harms of drug prohibition and drug use, such as legalizing marijuana, reducing criminal penalties and arrests for marijuana possession, and increasing the availability of counseling and treatment for drug addicts. We selected the DPA based on our impression that it is the leading nonprofit working on drug policy reform. That impression was based on our prior knowledge of the field, conversations with DPA founder and executive director Ethan Nadelmann, and conversations with representatives of two other major funders of drug policy reform. (A more recent conversation with Andy Ko of the Open Society Foundations’ Campaign for a New Drug Policy — notes from which are available here — confirmed this impression.) We made a $150,000 grant for general operating support to the DPA in June 2012.

Shortly thereafter, we hired independent consultants to landscape the field of drug policy reform, evaluate whether the DPA is the most effective organization working on this cause and suggest opportunities for future investigation and grantmaking. That evaluation is ongoing.

Marriage Equality

The second policy-related cause we chose to support last year was marriage equality, partly because the 2012 election represented an opportunity to legalize same-sex marriage in additional states before the Supreme Court hears a case on this issue.

We made our first learning grants in marriage equality to Freedom To Marry, a nonprofit that promotes the right of same-sex couples to marry in the U.S. Freedom to Marry’s goals include overturning the Defense of Marriage Act and winning the right for same-sex couples to marry in more U.S. states. We selected Freedom to Marry based on the recommendation of Sean Eldridge, a senior advisor at Freedom to Marry, who is a donor to several organizations that advocate for LGBT rights, and whom we trust and view as particularly knowledgeable about and invested in this cause. (Sean is the husband of Chris Hughes, who co-founded Facebook with Good Ventures Co-Founder Dustin Moskovitz in 2004.) In June 2012 we made a $150,000 grant for general operating support to Freedom to Marry. In September, we supported the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF) to make a $100,000 grant to Freedom to Marry Action — Freedom to Marry’s advocacy and political arm — to buy advertisements for the campaign to legalize same-sex marriage in Maine.[1] In November, we were gratified to see Maine voters approve a ballot initiative to legalize same-sex marriage, making Maine one of the first three states to legalize same-sex marriage via popular vote.[2]

  1. [1] 501(c)(3) nonprofits are subject to limits on legislative lobbying and prohibited from certain kinds of political activity, such as campaigning for or against candidates for public office. Meanwhile, 501(c)(4) nonprofits are allowed to engage in unlimited lobbying and some campaigning. Donations to 501(c)(4)s are not tax-deductible. Freedom to Marry is a 501(c)(3) whereas Freedom to Marry Action is a 501(c)(4). Good Ventures is not able to support 501(c)(4)s on its own, so we supported SVCF to fund Freedom to Marry Action, since same-sex marriage is a cause that SVCF also supports. This page from the Alliance for Justice has more information about the different types of nonprofit organizations and which advocacy and political activities they are allowed to engage in.

  2. [2] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/12/30/us/same-sex-marriage-becomes-legal-in-maine.html