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What is Public-Policy Philanthropy?
And Why Is It so Hard?

The traditional categories of philanthropy are familiar and broadly accepted: faith and religious works, medicine and health, scientific research and the advancement of knowledge, the education of young people, almsgiving and economic uplift, disaster relief, environmental conservation and stewardship, culture and the arts, and so on. It may not be self-evident that trying to reshape public policy is an equally worthy cause. Yet donating money to change public thinking and government policy has now taken its place next to service-centered giving as a constructive branch of philanthropy.

In its highest-octane version, policy philanthropy is sometimes combined with political contributions. Political giving, of course, is not tax-deductible, and must be done separately from charitable giving. But many of the leading-edge donors quoted in this book have found that charity is often more effective and lasting if supplemented by an intelligent mix of policy giving and political giving.

Education reformers, for instance, have learned that in addition to planting better schools, they need to hold policy and political umbrellas over the new seedlings to prevent them from being dashed in storms. Mind you, nearly all donors give away far more money on the charitable side than they do on the policy or politics sides. For instance, a Chronicle of Philanthropy analysis of the last Presidential cycle found that among America’s top philanthropists, the ten who donated most to political campaigns—people like Sheldon Adelson and George Soros—gave many times more to charitable causes than to political causes.

Grants that aim to reform society’s rules are sometimes controversial, but less so than in times past. Professor Stanley Katz has traced changing views on this matter:

The early foundations mostly danced around public policy and denied that they sought policy influence. That remained characteristic until the mid-twentieth century, when the overtly ­policy-oriented behavior of the Ford Foundation, under the leadership of McGeorge Bundy, evoked the congressional backlash of the Tax Reform Act of 1969. After that episode, the major foundations were once again ostentatiously careful about taking strong positions on matters of political contention. All that has changed in the twenty-first century.

Today, many donors view public-policy reform as a necessary adjunct to their efforts to improve lives directly. From charter schooling to creation of think tanks of all stripes, from tort reform to gay advocacy, donors have become involved in many efforts to shape opinion and law. This is perhaps inevitable given the mushrooming presence of government in our lives. In 1930, just 12 percent of U.S. GDP was consumed by government; by 2012 that had tripled to 36 percent. Unless and until that expansion of the state reverses, it is unrealistic to expect the philanthropic sector to stop trying to have a say in public policies.

Sometimes it’s not enough to build a house of worship; one must create policies that make it possible for people to practice their faith freely within society. Sometimes it is not enough to pay for a scholarship; one must change laws so that high-quality schools exist for scholarship recipients to take advantage of. Sometimes it is not enough to fund cancer research; one must press for more sensible regulations that allow labs and pharmaceutical companies to explore nature and follow economic incentives that stoke innovation.

This is harder than it sounds. In public-policy reform, the choice of goals will often involve fundamental questions about individual freedom and responsibility, the scope of the state and social control, and interpretations of human nature. Public-policy philanthropists routinely confront not just rivals in tactics who share mutual goals, but bitter opponents and even outright enemies who operate from different principles entirely.

The final third of this book is a detailed list of the major projects in public policy philanthropy undertaken in the U.S. over the last 182 years. Because one man’s good deed is another man’s calamity when it comes to giving with political implications, we have included policy advocacy of all sorts. We’re not categorizing these as desirable projects, just listing them because they are socially consequential (or seem likely to be, in cases where they haven’t yet run their course). These are efforts that must be considered significant, whether you admire or mourn the effect. Even those that don’t succeed sometimes offer important lessons.

Public-policy philanthropy has special ways of mystifying and frustrating its practitioners. Investments in other types of philanthropy more often deliver clear results: scholarships lead to college degrees, research points to cures, and construction projects build symphony halls. Attempting to draw straight lines between acts of philanthropy and particular policy outcomes can be a maddening chore, however. Moreover, ­public-policy struggles never seem to end. Victories one year become defeats the next, then turn into comebacks, and setbacks, and on and on. A sense of philanthropic satisfaction often requires zen-like patience.

Perhaps nothing is easier than giving away money poorly. Dwight Macdonald once described the Ford Foundation (an aggressive practitioner of public-policy philanthropy) as “a large body of money completely surrounded by people who want some.” There are endless ways to fail as a patron, particularly when you are trying to encourage ­public-policy solutions.

Where can philanthropists turn for honest, disinterested appraisals? A lesson from many walks of life—picking stocks, judging job applicants, scouting baseball players—shows a reliable way to predict future performance is to study past results. And so modern-day philanthropists in public policy would be wise to look at the examples of the donors who came before them. This book starts with the first stirrings of ­public-policy philanthropy in our pre-Civil War era, and runs through the explosion of activity in the latest two generations. By examining what their forerunners did and why, today’s benefactors will improve their chances of meeting their goals and making a difference.

So this guidebook is a collection of case studies in applied philanthropy. Learn from them and you can dramatically improve your own efforts to alter the direction of American governance. To make this evidence easy and sometimes even enjoyable to absorb, we present it mostly in human stories. We hope they give both pleasure and new power to your philanthropy.

Adam Meyerson
President, The Philanthropy Roundtable

Karl Zinsmeister
Vice president, publications, The Philanthropy Roundtable

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