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Philanthropists Need to Play Politics

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A foundation leader recently invited me to join a discussion about the negative impact of money on politics. For me, scarier than that impact is the idea of funders talking about how to change the system while not working within it to pursue their philanthropic goals.

Money has had a hugely negative influence on politics and the policies that many philanthropists care about. This won't change until there is significant campaign-finance reform. But until that reform happens -- which could well be a generation away -- philanthropists should set side fears of political giving. The issues they care about can't wait a generation, so they should put their own resources to work now.

I recently helped a funder understand why their grantees were not more successful in their advocacy efforts. The White House officials and members of Congress I spoke to were clear: At a time when the country and our legislators are sharply divided, playing politics has a greater impact than pushing policy. I don't like it. I dedicate considerable resources to change that. But for now, it is the reality.

There are lots of ways philanthropists can affect change: make grants to like-minded nonprofits; use their professional skills and visibility to shape public conversations; invest in socially-driven companies whose products or services have positive impacts on society. But engaging financially in the political process is a critical lever that too few philanthropists integrate into their strategies for change. Using personal contributions to help political candidates who support the issues you care about -- or to counter candidates who oppose your interests -- is the best way to build a base of support for the future policy changes that are needed to reach your philanthropic goals.

Some may say that this is a hypocritical point of view: If I feel that the current campaign-finance laws are dismantling our political system, aren't I condoning it by participating? Perhaps. But in the meantime, the economic development, human health, education and ecological issues that we all care about are getting worse. It's possible, and I would argue critical, to advocate for campaign-finance reform while still engaging in the present system. The smartest individual donors are doing this now -- granting to organizations pushing for campaign finance reform while using personal contributions to support candidates who are committed to reform as well.

Like with any other aspect of your philanthropic work, to achieve the results you seek, your political giving should be targeted and strategic. The guidelines and funder options Arabella has outlined here can help. In addition, Arabella will host a Q&A session for philanthropists about how to make the most of political donations on Sept. 12, and I'd welcome the chance to discuss this with you then.