Those of us who work in the philanthropic sector are not excused from this civic duty just because our organizations are legally limited or prohibited from lobbying.
Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Occupy Wall Street demonstration in lower Manhattan. As a grey-haired guy who spends most of his days on the comfortable Seattle campus of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to some in Zuccotti Park, I may have seemed a little out of place. Yet the Occupy Wall Street folks forcefully brought back to my own mind the days spent―not so very long ago―taking to the streets to support the struggle for civil rights, an end to the War in Vietnam, and the call for a better response to the AIDS crisis.
Regardless of our ages, of what desks we sit behind, or of our social and political perspectives, one of the responsibilities of citizenship is to let our friends, neighbors, and leaders know what we are thinking about the issues of the day and how we can do better as a nation to achieve our vision of an engaged democracy in action. Those of us who work in the philanthropic sector are not excused from this civic duty just because our organizations are legally limited or prohibited from lobbying.
There is a considerable distance between what we can do within our sector to let our local, state, and national leaders know what we are thinking and the legal act of lobbying that is clearly out of bounds. That line is actually far down the field from where many of us focus most of our activities and efforts. There is a world of things we can do that keep us well within the limits the law puts on our sector.
Where the work of ending homelessness is concerned, we’re fully in the clear when we seek to educate elected and appointed officials about the issues and the evidence-based practices that offer proven pathways toward success. While we as foundation representatives must steer clear of addressing pending legislation and efforts to sway individual voter decisions at a grass-roots level―about candidates running for office or public ballot initiatives, for example―we have a responsibility to let both elected officials and the larger community know what matters to us as funders, why we are making the grants we make, and what impacts we are seeking to achieve through our work. We are even within the boundaries established by the law when we comment on existing policies, bills that have been signed into law, and the configuration of funding that is already in place.
None of that is lobbying. It’s citizenship. And I would argue that the grantmaking hats we wear don’t absolve us from this responsibility. Instead, it means we must be sure to use our voices in ways that are loud and clear.
So, whether you are funding activities that relate to housing and services, or child welfare and education, or workforce training, or domestic violence―know that the grants we make are only part of the work we can do. The funds we provide are but a single facet of who we are or can be as philanthropists. When and how we use our voices to promote the changes we know are needed is perhaps as important as the grants we make.
Nota Bene: I am not an attorney, nor do I play one on TV. Please do not construe the contents of this blog as legal advice. For formal legal opinions, please consult your own foundation’s attorneys.
David Wertheimer is the Deputy Director of the Pacific Northwest Initiative at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle, Washington, as well as the Board Chair of Funders Together to End Homelessness.