A conversation with Theda Skocpol on April 2, 2014


Note: These notes give an overview of the points made by Professor Skocpol in the conversation.


Good Ventures spoke to Professor Skocpol about achieving policy change through philanthropy and about philanthropic causes including healthcare reform, criminal justice reform, voting rights, and climate change.

Achieving policy change through philanthropy

Role of philanthropists

Many ideas for better policies are already available, and there is a strong infrastructure in place to generate more policy ideas. However, not enough is known about how to achieve policy change, and even known avenues to change policy are underused.

Funders working on a cause should both:

In practice, most funders only do one or the other (particularly, many funders do only the former).

Philanthropists should work more on:

In Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life, Professor Skocpol argued that American civic groups are transitioning from having many active members to being driven by a few managers. This has reduced these groups' capacity to build broad coalitions in support of policy change. Philanthropists hoping to achieve policy change should work with leaders of groups that still have many active members, such as unions and church communities. Particularly, philanthropists should aim to engage those leaders who are familiar with how the government works and how to change policy. Philanthropists should also work with lobbyists and others who have experience effecting policy change.

Philanthropists should mostly avoid working on reforming the political process, with the exception of working for voting rights. Many philanthropists are currently interested in getting money out of politics, but this seems unlikely to happen in the coming decades, especially given recent judicial decisions.

Philanthropists pay pollsters millions of dollars to test phrases with focus groups, but this research is rarely worthwhile.

Role of academics

To understand how philanthropy can promote policy change, scholars should research what kinds of relationships between movements, coalitions, and funders — as well as which strategic and policy choices — contribute to successful policy change. Researchers with this expertise can advise philanthropists about which strategies to use in the short term to pass a bill or in the long term to build public support and coalitions around a policy. Steve Teles does high-quality work in this vein. His work on conservative philanthropy is a good example. However, most scholars who study philanthropy simply write about the goals and actions of donors.

Scholars Strategy Network

Professor Skocpol started the Scholars Strategy Network (SSN), a group of academics who study civic groups, public opinion, and policymaking in the states and nationally. The scholars publish on the network short, plain-language summaries of their research relating to key policy issues. Professor Skocpol hopes that the SSN will help communicate key research findings to policymakers.


Healthcare reform

The Atlantic Philanthropies' strategy

In the lead-up to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the Atlantic Philanthropies invited proposals from coalitions offering different strategies to achieve healthcare reform. They funded proposals to support a public health insurance option and to build coalitions for health care reform in states and locally.

The Atlantic Philanthropies invested a modest amount of money relative to other funders, but they had an outsize impact on the success of the ACA. This is because the Atlantic Philanthropies successfully combined research on what policies would be helpful and politically feasible with coalition building, while other funders invested in lobbying in the capital on a narrow set of policies.

Future opportunities

Many funders seem to believe that the ACA fully achieved comprehensive healthcare reform, but in fact, the ACA created the opening for further reform. The next rounds of reform may spread from state to state. The next decade is a window of opportunity to expand coverage and reduce healthcare costs.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation does important work funding research to devise new policies for reform. However, the greatest need is for work to put policies into effect.

The ACA channels resources into community health centers, which are important for reaching underserved populations. These populations can best be reached by cooperation between medical professionals and social service providers. These services should be strengthened to respond to increasing demand for healthcare. A philanthropist could encourage the flourishing of community health centers and other approaches to delivering healthcare.

Public options of various kinds should be offered on the health insurance exchanges. In Maine, a cooperative insurance plan offers better prices than commercial options, allowing poor people to gain access to health insurance.

Voting rights

Research discussed on the SSN (http://www.scholarsstrategynetwork.org/content/forward-or-back-voting-rights) shows that states have instituted many restrictions on voter documentation and registration procedures, ostensibly to prevent fraud. However, these restrictions have suppressed legitimate voting, especially among disempowered groups. The disenfranchisement of these groups tends to skew policy outcomes against them.

The most important reforms to promote voting by all citizens and particularly by poor people are Election Day voter registration and making Election Day a holiday. Adding voting days would intuitively seem likely to help people vote, but in fact it has little impact among voters not already registered.

One study determined that Puerto Ricans in Puerto Rico are more likely to vote than Puerto Ricans in New York, even though both of these groups have relatively low incomes, because Puerto Rico has a holiday on election day while New York does not.

One of Professor Skocpol's students is studying the successful referendum to restore voting rights to felons in Rhode Island in 2006 to learn what strategies can build public support for this typically unpopular cause.

To achieve voting rights reforms, networks of citizens in states should ask their state legislators to change the voting laws. The issue is particularly appealing to college students.

Climate change

The Rockefeller Family Fund asked Professor Skocpol to research why legislation to reduce carbon emissions failed to pass Congress in 2009-2010. She found that the push for emissions restrictions was dominated by one large consortium of funders, which invested most of its substantial resources into lobbying in Washington, D.C. for a cap and trade law. These funders should have diversified their efforts.

In pushing for putting a price on carbon and building a green economy at the national and state levels, funders should seed coalitions that include groups with close ties to communities. These groups can organize in congressional districts and states. However, it is hard for large funders to move away from the D.C.-based lobbying infrastructure that they used to push for cap and trade.

Most Americans are concerned about global warming but fear that legislation to limit carbon emissions would carry heavy costs to themselves and their businesses. The cap and trade bill contained no provisions to quell those fears. A tax on emissions redistributed to Americans as a green energy dividend (http://www.scholarsstrategynetwork.org/content/why-now-time-build-broad-citizen-movement-green-energy-dividends-0) would address those concerns, though other policies might also work.

Macroeconomic policy

One of Professor Skocpol's students is developing policies to fix the unemployment insurance system so that it supports economic recovery and helps workers find jobs.

Researchers should maintain a list of ideas for projects for the national and state governments to fund in case of an economic downturn in order to stimulate the economy and cut short the downturn. The US did not spend enough on such projects during the 2007-2009 recession, which created lingering unemployment that particularly hurts young families.

Labor mobility and immigration

Mobility of both high- and low-skilled workers is an increasingly important issue. It is crucial to provide policymakers with good research on the likely impacts of immigration policies. For example, research on the SSN shows that building border walls would be harmful (http://www.scholarsstrategynetwork.org/scholar-profile/204).

The comprehensive immigration bill that passed the Senate last summer includes provisions for facilitating both tech and agricultural workers to come to the US. The bill also contains provisions on many other immigration topics unrelated to labor mobility, such as increasing militarization of the borders and expanding the rights of undocumented immigrants already living in the US.

Compensation for kidney donation

Phillip Cook, a professor at Duke University, argues that a regulated system of compensation for kidney donation is necessary to meet demand for kidneys (http://www.scholarsstrategynetwork.org/sites/default/files/ssn_key_findings_cook_and_krawiec_on_kidney_donation.pdf). Families of those affected by chronic disease tend to be effective at achieving policy change because they tend to be highly mobilized even before the policy campaign. A philanthropist might be able to bring together networks of families to push for compensation for kidney donation. Compensation programs could start in a few states and then spread to others.

Gun control

Kristin Goss, a professor at ­­Duke, explained why America's gun reform movement is weak in Disarmed: The Missing Movement for Gun Control in America. The book shows that it would be very hard to achieve significantly more gun control in the US. It also provides lessons for pursuing policy change on other issues.

Criminal justice reform

Professor Skocpol believes that criminal justice reform is very important. The SSN recently published a spotlight on the topic (http://www.scholarsstrategynetwork.org/content/mass-incarceration-and-american-democracy).

Criminal justice reform is a rare opportunity for bipartisan collaboration.

Other causes

Gay marriage and nationwide marijuana legalization are almost inevitable. Some forms of marijuana legalization would be better than others. Philanthropists may be able to help the most beneficial forms of legalization spread across states and limit the spread of less beneficial policies.

Other people to talk to