What is the role of philanthropy in lobbying and policy-making?

Alliance magazine

As the global philanthropy sector has grown in complexity, so too has the intersection of philanthropy and law. Ahead of Alliance magazine’s March issue on law and philanthropy, we wanted to understand how the philanthropic sector works with lobbyists and policy-makers, who the key people in this area are, and how different regions of the world are approaching this work.

So, we reached out to a few members of the Alliance community to hear about their experiences with this work. Below is a collection of responses.


Nadya Hernández, WINGS

In 2020, the importance of the philanthropy sector in the development arena increased due to the pandemic and related recovery plans. At the global level, we have observed four major trends regarding the advocacy work philanthropy is doing right now:

  • The need to raise awareness about the role of philanthropy as part of broader civil society, so that it is considered as a relevant actor and is seen as an asset to support the work of other sectors (governments, private business, etc.).
  • A sense of urgency to find better frameworks to promote cross-border giving, individual giving, and boost domestic philanthropy as ways to generate and allocate private resources for the common good.
  • A growing effort to protect the enabling environment and ensure that the restrictions to mitigate the pandemic do not result in a reduction of civic space and the actions that take place in it.
  • The clear importance to communicate the need for a stronger infrastructure/ecosystem for philanthropy, so that organisations have the right support to coordinate, learn and act together.

At WINGS, we see a growing trend of Philanthropy Support Organisations worldwide working on advocacy and policy issues. They are monitoring the evolution of the conditions for organisations to operate, tracking the contributions to have a clear idea of the impact they are creating, and promoting multi-stakeholder collaboration at their national or regional levels.

Globally, our network is harnessing and leveraging the collective voice of the field and ensuring that our concerns and ideas to tackle existing issues are being raised in the UN system and in global spaces such as the Policy Forum on Development or the Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation.

It is easier to organise a webinar and invite a legislator to present and to listen to questions, than to invite him to a gathering with organisations.

The use of technology has supported a lot of the formal spaces of discussion. But not being able to attend physical spaces creates obstacles in building trust and identifying further ways of collaboration. The human component of this work happens when people get together: exchanging ideas, building consensus, learning from a particular experience. All of this happens more in-depth when these exchanges are not mediated by a computer or an internet connection

Some of our members are doing great things at their own level. For example, CoF and UPF in the US, Dafne and EFC at the European level, AVPN in Asia. We know others in Latin America and Africa are also driving coalitions and promoting specific agendas in collaboration with other CSOs. The ideal scenario will be to have actors everywhere promoting a healthy environment for the field and ensuring they are offering potential joint solutions to foster better conditions for philanthropy to fulfil its mission.


Max von Abendroth, Dafne & EFC Philanthropy Advocacy, Brussels

The European philanthropy sector has a dedicated interest representation in place. The joint Dafne/EFC Philanthropy Advocacy initiative acts as monitoring, legal analysis and policy engagement hub on behalf of more than 10,000 donors and foundations in Europe. Jointly with Hanna Surmatz from the EFC I co-lead the advocacy work on the operating environment in Europe. The basis for our work is the European Philanthropy Manifesto, launched in 2019 in time for the European Parliament elections. This manifesto calls for acknowledging philanthropy in the European treaties, reducing legal barriers for philanthropy such as non-proportionate regulation on money laundering or terrorism financing, introducing a single market for cross-border donations and investments from philanthropy and improving framework conditions for co-investments and co-funding with public authorities.

The Philanthropy Advocacy team is based in Brussels only a few steps from the EU institutions and consists of experienced lawyers, passionate communication experts and well-connected public affairs professionals. A key factor for success though is the active and engaged network of national association and foundation members across Europe with their close relationships to national governments and their respective Members of the European Parliament.

During the pandemic, policy events such as dinner receptions are not an option and therefore building informal relationships with policy makers and key stakeholders is more difficult. Also, physical meetings with Members of the European Parliament and representatives of the European Commission had to be substituted by bilateral Zoom meetings. In particular the lack of the direct human contact during the pandemic is undermining the most important ingredient for advocacy success: trusted relationships.

While it is more challenging to attract new supporters under the current circumstances, online conversations and debates with politicians have improved in terms of quantity and quality. They are a way to keep existing relationships alive and our advocacy asks visible and even get some of them onto the EU agenda. Philanthropy Advocacy hosted and supported three high-level online debates and different online conversations during the pandemic and by doing so was able to advance the EU policy agenda in favour of philanthropy over the last 12 months, including the recommendations for cross-border philanthropy policies.

North America

Natalie Ross

Natalie Ross and Brian Kastner, Council on Foundations, United States

Unlike in many countries, charitable foundations in the United States can legally engage in both direct and indirect action around public policy. In April 2020, the Council on Foundations hosted a pledge calling for philanthropy to shift practices during the pandemic, including calling for foundations to further embrace supporting advocacy. Despite almost 800 funders signing the Pledge, recent CEP research finds that funding advocacy remains the least popular pledge component, both before and during the pandemic. Why is advocacy not a larger priority? And in this moment, how can philanthropic investment in policy and advocacy best support democracy and advance the greater good?

Brian Kastner

American philanthropy is divided when it comes to engaging in advocacy and policy. We have seen successful philanthropic resourcing on issues like marriage equalityprotecting undocumented families from overreaching Census questions, and strengthening the integrity of elections. Much of this policy success has come from collaborations that engage diverse stakeholders in pursuit of a common policy goal. At the same time, a 2020 study found that although many US foundations engage in policy, it’s often a small percentage of their overall funding and the biggest barrier to policy work often comes from foundation boards.

This moment pushes all of us to think carefully about the role of philanthropy, in the US and globally. Engaging in advocacy is an important tool in our philanthropic toolbox, especially since philanthropic engagement in the policy arena doesn’t always mean influencing legislation. In the US, we have seen the power of effectively telling philanthropy’s story and helping US lawmakers better understand our sector’s value and impact, as well as our perspective on critical challenges within communities.

In particular the lack of the direct human contact during the pandemic is undermining the most important ingredient for advocacy success: trusted relationships.

As foundations engage with policymakers, however, they should also ask important questions like: Is my philanthropy strengthening public institutions, instead of bypassing or weakening them? Is my foundation centring our values and the values of American democracy in our work?

We deeply believe that philanthropy can and should leverage tools available to advance policy, advocate on issues, and support large-scale systems change in pursuit of the greater good. We also know that philanthropy must be a trusted partner. To achieve together the changes that are needed in our communities, nation, and around the world, philanthropy must be an engaged and humble stakeholder in the world of public policy, sharing our successes and lessons learned with policymakers, and partnering to advance our shared priorities.


Patsian Low, AVPN, Singapore

In the wake of the pandemic in Asia, we have seen that there is a renewed energy and opportunity for the philanthropy sector and policy to find new ways to work together, complement each others’ resources to achieve commonly desired outcomes in health, gender equality, climate change.

The Asian Venture Philanthropy Network (AVPN) believes that policymakers are critical partners to philanthropy and impact capital – and can therefore be better equipped to achieve and scale their impact goals. This can be done by strengthening capabilities to unlock private sector capital for policy priorities and signalling collaborative models for future development.

AVPN has partnered with policymakers in Indonesia, Thailand, India, and more to support policymakers in achieving their national impact agenda, including on:

  • Collaborating with the Ministry of Tourism & Creative Economy to mobilise more capital for the creative economy ecosystem in Indonesia.
  • Engaging with the Securities Exchange Commission of Thailand to drive sustainable capital markets.
  • Mobilising private sector investor interest in West Java province in Indonesia to scale social impact.
  • Working with NITI Aayog and The Rockefeller Foundation in India to drive advocacy/impact in the Health and Renewable Energy sectors across five states in India.

Amid the pandemic, we have since launched the Toyota Foundation Policy Leadership Lab, a fellowship programme that works with policymakers in Southeast Asia to engage with social investors to achieve impact. Despite physical limitations, the interest and intent for partnerships between policymakers and AVPN members continue to be very strong, which is an encouraging sign for future collaborations.

Latin America

Pablo Collada, WINGS Senior Advisor and Coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean, Mexico

In Latin America, civil society has recently been experiencing a concerning increase of attacks. The instances are wide-ranging – from the measures implemented by the Nicaraguan government of Ortega to block and prosecute any type of opposition, to a series of verbally demeaning statements from Brazilian president Bolsonaro aimed at the social sector, to the constant violence and harassment that many organisations experience on a daily basis in several countries.

Within this context, it is important that the philanthropy sector actively engages in the public debate to push for a better environment for organisations to operate in. Through the WINGS network, and particularly the Latin America and the Caribbean Working Group, we have identified a series of actions in the region:

Brazil is undergoing a national tax reform process. The organisation ABCR has been working to make it inclusive and fair to the non-profit sector. They have proposed constitutional amendments to reduce the costs of receiving donations, while advocating for the financial inclusion of the sector.

In Mexico, the government presented a tax initiative that deeply affected the civil society sector. It limited self-funding possibilities for organisations, threatened closure and unfair penalisation, provided a lack of clarity around who would lose registration, and placed restrictions on the right of association. In response, a group of institutions and networks embarked on a variety of actions to defend the sector.

Chile has long waited for integrated donation regulations that puts an end to a very complex diversity of mechanisms that are currently in use. With strong leadership from CEFIS and other organisations, and after several efforts that included debates and campaigns, the government has committed to a new proposal for 2021.

As foundations engage with policymakers, however, they should also ask important questions like: Is my philanthropy strengthening public institutions, instead of bypassing or weakening them? Is my foundation centring our values and the values of American democracy in our work?

During the pandemic, organisations have managed to use all the resources available to continue their advocacy work. For some, the increased use of technology has actually created more opportunities for their interactions with decision makers. ‘It is easier to organise a webinar and invite a legislator to present and to listen to questions, than to invite him to a gathering with organisations,’ said Alejandro Castillo from Pronatura Noreste, a conservation non-profit in Mexico.

It has become evident that local action is not enough and that there is a growing need for improved regional dialogue on the challenges that the sector is facing and how the philanthropic ecosystem can address it.

Miguel de la Vega, UnidOSC, Mexico

For a long time, activists and lobbyists have advocated to improve national legal frameworks and general conditions in which millions of organisations around the world work for the common good. Philanthropic institutions have been close allies for many causes, to the point where some governments, with poor records regarding respect for human rights, have established obstacles to their support.

Financial restrictions have become a tool by certain states, in recent years, to hinder the free flow of funds to CSOs identified as critical to national governments or labelled as developing ‘terrorism financing’ or even ‘terrorism activities’. Such states impose sanctions under a discretionary interpretation of counter terrorism finance measures. The result is philanthropic labour obstructed, to the extent in which foreign aid to CSOs in several countries is either under authoritarian control or plainly forbidden.

In a time where restrictions to civil society seem to multiply, global advocacy that combines the efforts of organisations on the ground and philanthropic institutions is relevant to get support from multinational institutions. The work developed by networks like the Global NPO Coalition on FATF (Financial Action Task Force) turns out to be inspiring in this sense.

As a broad global alliance, the Coalition has managed to build spaces for the voices of civil society to be heard – and taken into account – to enrich FATF´s work. Nowadays, consultations with CSOs are becoming more frequent by international institutions, under the common interest to achieve a balance between protection of human rights and counter terrorism financial measures.

The experience has shown that whenever philanthropic perspectives are represented by solid lobbying practices, based on technical knowledge and diverse but effective networking, even the most complex institutions can be opened for the perspective of those defending the most vulnerable on the ground.

Upcoming issue: Law, philanthropy and justice

Legal action has a significant contribution to make to achieving social change and covers a huge range of fundable activities. These include widening access to justice, supporting public legal education, investing in the next generation of activist lawyers and helping human rights defenders and climate activists. Yet only a small part of organised philanthropy has a specific strategy for legal action and many funders are cautious about working in this area. This issue will explore new ways for funders to reimagine justice and debate effective strategies for contemporary philanthropic engagement in and with the law. Guest edited by Nicolette Naylor, Director of the Southern Africa office of the Ford Foundation and David Sampson, Deputy Director, Baring Foundation, UK.

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