Provocations on American Foundations and Policy


Lucy Bernholz


American foundations sometimes fund advocacy or policy analysis or community organizing as part of their strategies for particular types of social change.

But who advocates on behalf of foundations about philanthropic policy? And what are the policy domains that matter to foundations as enterprises? In 2013 my Stanford colleague Rob Reich and I published a policy forecast on the issues that pertain to American foundations and nonprofits. The usual suspects – tax code, payout rate – those are in there. You can read that document here.

But it’s high time to recognize that the tax code is no longer the fundamental policy frame shaping philanthropy and nonprofits. In a time when social businesses, impact investing, campaign contributions, and crowdfunding are all growing,  it should be obvious that tax privilege is only one factor that Americans consider when thinking about using their private resources for public benefit.

And in the digital age, the infrastructural issues that matter to civil society are going to be about data privacy, ownership, infrastructure access, security, and consent.

The tax code was the 20th century policy infrastructure for philanthropy.
Digital regulations will provide the scaffolding and shape for 21st century associations and expression – aka, civil society.
The laws on digital data and infrastructure will define how civil society functions in a digital age.

With this in mind, back in April I wrote a provocations piece on the policy infrastructure for philanthropy. I’m pleased to now make this document public. Here are the key points:

  • Focus less exclusively on tax policy. The foundationinfrastructure and policy groups need to build working relationships and expertise on corporate code, digital policy,and investment regulations (at least)
  • Proactively engage with other philanthropic options andmechanisms for using private resources for public benefit.These include impact investing, crowdfunding, Bcorporations.
  • Separate policy expertise from big‐tent membershipassociations so these experts can be more proactive, flexible,and coalition‐oriented.
  • Build relationships that cross type – foundations andcrowdfunding platforms, foundations and impact investors– so that broad coalitions can be mobilized to respond topolicy opportunities.
  • Reach beyond the professional staff of foundations to buildcoalitions, more diverse skill sets, and deeper relationshipswith government partners, regulators and adjacent industryallies.
  • Develop a coordinated voice to the public aboutphilanthropy’s inherent and comparative value.
  • Consider how the journalism industry’s focus on FirstAmendment issues serve as an analog for thinking aboutassociational (nonprofit) policy. This could lead to moreflexible and diverse relationships with existing FirstAmendment policy organizations and advocates.

You can read the download the paper here.

I welcome your thoughts.

Lucy Bernholz is the author of the blog philanthropy2173, where this article first appeared.

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