How philanthropy can increase its policy influence

By: Heather Little and Professor Michael Mintrom   |   Monash University   |

The core mission of philanthropy is to be socially useful, addressing challenges that would otherwise not receive adequate attention. When choosing how to contribute to society, philanthropic individuals and organisations weigh up the value of treating the symptoms of a problem against the value of tackling the underlying causes. Tackling underlying causes often means philanthropy must seek to influence public policy.

So how can philanthropy increase its policy influence?

Heather Little 


We draw on political science and policy studies research to highlight five strategies that can improve the chances of any organisation having policy influence.
They are:

  1. Problem framing
  2. Gathering relevant evidence about problems and solutions
  3. Strengthening networks and advocacy coalitions
  4. Leading by example
  5. Working to scale up change

We discuss each in turn.

Most big problems in society have multiple facets. Advocates can more effectively address those problems when they deliberately choose how they will talk about them. This can help frame the terms of subsequent discussion and debate – what is often called ‘the policy narrative’. In its recent Thrive by Five campaign, the Minderoo Foundation has emphasised how early childhood education can improve the life chances of Australia’s youngest citizens. This framing suggests that increased funding for early childhood education is not a cost to society but an investment. Placing child development centre stage provides a powerful starting point for discussing other matters, such as better training and compensation for early childhood teachers and carers.

Philanthropy can also enhance policy influence by supporting efforts to gather policy-relevant evidence about problems and solutions.

New evidence can be critical for changing the terms of policy discussion. In 2009 the Myer Foundation collaborated with Monash University to establish ClimateWorks Australia. For over a decade, this partnership has produced new evidence of the harmful effects of greenhouse gases and how specific efforts can reduce carbon emissions. That evidence has informed policy conversations in Australia and internationally.

Philanthropic individuals and organisations often work to build networks of people who share a common cause. Sponsoring conferences or curating newsletters might not appear to contribute to policy influence. But they keep the networks buzzing. And that makes it easier for advocacy to be ramped up when opportunities for policy change seem imminent. Further, the conversations that happen through these initiatives help philanthropists stay informed on what is happening on the ground, on the research front, and in policy circles. Such insights can usefully guide on-going strategy.

Professor Michael Mintrom

Governments are usually risk-averse. This makes them less open to driving policy change. But if cabinet members can be persuaded that the risks of change are low, then they are more likely to act decisively. Philanthropy can effect change by funding and publicising pilot programs. Since 2013, the Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation has worked with the community in Bourke, New South Wales, to reduce youth crime and recidivism. The carefully documented results in Bourke reveal that criminal justice can be reformed. Good outcomes have been secured for young people who might otherwise have fallen into lives of crime. Bourke offers evidence that justice reinvestment is not just a good idea. It works and it could be implemented widely in Australia to good effect.

Innovations frequently happen in localities. Broader change is more likely to happen when many people learn what is possible and how it can be achieved. Philanthropy is well-placed to draw attention to local success cases and use them to illustrate the positive outcomes that could emerge from systemic change.

Philanthropists seeking policy influence could benefit from reflecting on these five influence strategies. But risks emerge for philanthropists when they seek such influence. They may be accused of paying too little attention to frontline problems while they fund research and advocacy. They may be accused of dabbling in partisan politics by those who disagree with the policy changes they advocate. And their funding of research and advocacy might not translate into policy influence, leaving them open to criticism of being inept or wasteful.

In the face of such risks, it could be tempting for philanthropists to avoid investing in policy influence. After all, policy influence is never guaranteed, as illustrated whenever governments ignore the recommendations of royal commissions, think tanks, consultancies, and even their own departmental advisors.  

But with a clear vision of the outcomes they are seeking, and by striking a balance between addressing symptoms and addressing the deeper causes of problems, philanthropic individuals and organisations can make immediate differences to pressing challenges while working to change policy conversations. Treating symptoms and tackling the underlying causes of major challenges are not mutually exclusive.

Indeed, many benefits can emerge when philanthropy aligns actions on the ground and the pursuit of policy influence.

Heather Little is Senior Development Manager - Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Monash University.

Professor Michael Mintrom is Director, Better Governance and Policy
Associate Dean of Arts – Enterprise, Deputy Course Director, Master of Public Policy, School of Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts, Monash University

May. 28, 2021

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