Building Bridges: Philanthropy's Journey Towards Active Advocacy

Friday, April 12, 2024

Building Bridges: Philanthropy's Journey Towards Active Advocacy
A Message from CEO, Kathryn O'Neal-Dunham

“Leaders in philanthropy can no longer expect to remain neutral.  Philanthropy must actively advocate in support of creating the conditions necessary for a thriving government, nonprofit sector and philanthropy.”

In 2021, I noted that Philanthropy New York’s commitment to anti-racist action requires us to lean into ideas that create tension between our current existence and the way we say we want to operate as a member organization. Three years later, PNY’s policy work is one area where we still feel that tension. 

For nonprofits, their workforce, and philanthropic funding to function with maximum impact, government must perform efficiently, effectively, and fairly. Far too often we see examples of room for improvement in the relationship between government and the nonprofit sector. From Philanthropy New York’s vantage point, we recognize that philanthropic grants are not enough to address the vastly inequitable public policies that have shaped every facet of American life. 

Changing the dynamic between these two critical stakeholders requires that philanthropy stands in solidarity with campaigns that support more efficient contracting and wage equity and investment in movements that build the power of nonprofit workers and amplify the voices of community leaders who offer solutions for neighborhoods most impacted by decades of divestment. With trust in nonprofits and philanthropic institutions at a historic low, Philanthropy New York and its member organizations must develop a new, more courageous way of working together to catalyze meaningful social change. 

The Possibilities of Collective Action 

BoardSource’s Stand for Your Mission initiative makes clear the opportunity — in fact, the responsibility — for philanthropic leaders to impact public policy through advocacy:

“[Public policy] can help nonprofit organizations make important advances that create lasting, positive change. True solutions, instead of temporary fixes…when it comes to our missions, the impact of changes in public policy is rarely neutral. And – as leaders of our organizations – that means that we cannot be neutral either.

Advocacy is about educating decision makers about the impact of the public policy decisions they are contemplating. It’s about helping them understand how the people and communities we care about will be impacted. And it’s about making sure that we aren’t sitting on the sidelines while decisions that would positively or negatively impact our missions are being made.”

When exercised at its best, philanthropy is not only capable of providing financial support for civic activities but also of mobilizing our sector’s engagement. By serving as an ally to nonprofits and building relationships with activists and policymakers, a more equitable New York is possible.

Our member's philanthropic contributions have been leveraged to:

What We’re Up Against and What We’re Advocating For  

We not only want governmental policymakers to be aware of the critical issues that our members and their grantee partners are working to address, we want to build the relationships that ensure philanthropic practitioners can support and educate policymakers when there are opportunities to address these issues in policy development.

Consider some of the more recent backlash against racial equity and democracy-building efforts:  

  • The actors who built and won the case against Affirmative Action have now set their sights on philanthropy, serving the Fearless Fund with a lawsuit against their work to invest in women of color-led businesses seeking catalytic support 
  • The role of tax-exempt organizations in American politics was questioned when a congressional oversight committee called on nonprofit experts to testify at a hearing in December
  • A redistricting effort in New York State will once again redraw the lines and dictate whose voice matters – neighborhood by neighborhood – in New York City

We are calling on our member organizations to work with us and each other to actively advocate for the conditions in which government, nonprofits, and philanthropy can thrive.

Philanthropy New York is committed to growing our institutional capacity to influence government and strengthen the nonprofit sector. As I referenced in the opening of this letter, Philanthropy New York recognizes that neutrality is no longer an option. Neutrality risks perpetuating harm that is and is poised to be embedded in our public policy. We are committed to creating opportunities for our members to engage in advocacy efforts with us, in hopes of inspiring individuals to strengthen efforts within their own organizations.

We at Philanthropy New York are working in collaboration with our nonprofit partners and our membership to address several issues through advocacy this year:

  • Reforming nonprofit contracting: Our ongoing efforts with local NYC government aim to ensure that nonprofit organizations receive on-time and complete contract payments. For example, our Policy Team has submitted testimony in 2022 and 2023 to stand in allyship with nonprofits and provide additional pressure to city officials to prioritize reforming this cumbersome system and its deleterious impact on nonprofits and the communities they serve. This work is pivotal for enhancing the sustainability of nonprofits and enabling them to continue their impactful work.
  • Pressing for a living wage: We are thrilled with the results of efforts, led by our partners at the Human Services Council of New York and other dedicated organizations to advocate for a living wage for nonprofit employees. Our partners' resolute advocacy for a long-overdue pay increase for nonprofit human services workers in New York City led to the City’s historic investment of over $740 million to provide Cost of Living Adjustments every year over the next three years illustrating the power of collective action.
  • Building Relationships with Policymakers:  Each year, Philanthropy New York brings a group of members to Washington DC for Foundations on the Hill.  We engage with policymakers to ensure they are aware of the critical issues members are addressing at the local level and offer PNY member expertise as a resource in nascent policy development. Additionally, as connectors and conveners, PNY invites policymakers to call on us to consider nonprofit and philanthropic insights on issues they craft policy around.  

How You Can Get Involved:

We invite you to join us for funder briefings with our nonprofit partners, get involved in the work of the Philanthropy New York Public Policy Committee, and attend Foundations on the Hill.  Learn more about the ways that your foundation can support power-building efforts, raise your voice through a PNY working group, and support your grantees in taking action.  

Members can also work to support to: 

  • Elevate the impact of underfunding the safety net in NYC: Over the upcoming months, it will be crucial to clearly express and enhance the repercussions of rising budget reductions in New York City, particularly as the City approaches final budget determinations. It's imperative to link the growing influx of new New Yorkers seeking asylum with essential resources. However, the nonprofits most suitable for this task are still recuperating from staff exhaustion and financial deficits stemming from delayed payments. Addressing these weakening elements in the safety net is essential if we are to uphold the City's ethos as a welcoming refuge. 
  • Increase the capacity for nonprofit lobbying and advocacy: Policies like the new Nonprofit SEAT Act that scale effective solutions, cut red tape, expand nonprofit lobbying thresholds, and meet the unique needs of nonprofit workers are critical to a healthy sector. Nonprofit leaders are the experts and trusted representatives of many New Yorkers and should have influence on decisions that impact our communities.  

Philanthropic funding cannot fill the gaps created by inefficient government contracting, poverty-level contract wages, and decades of inequitable policymaking. Expanding and amplifying the voice of the nonprofit sector and advocating and educating policymakers are investments in a foundation’s impact. This work requires long-term commitment, trust, and courage in the face of mounting backlash. 

If you are interested in taking those first steps, the Philanthropy New York team stands ready to support you. If your foundation is already pursuing policy change and power building with movements, tell us about it so that we can connect you with your peers who want to learn more. We look forward to working in community with our members to catalyze the change necessary to achieve a more equitable, sustainable, and democratic future.