A national network of funders supporting strategic, innovative, and effective solutions to homelessness

Stepping Up to the Line: Philanthropy’s Advocacy Role

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_2012a.jpgDavid 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.



We joined Funders Together because we believe in the power of philanthropy to play a major role in ending homelessness, and we know we have much to learn from funders across the country.

-Christine Marge, Director of Housing and Financial Stability at United Way of Greater Los Angeles

I am thankful for the local partnerships here in the Pacific Northwest that we’ve been able to create and nurture thanks to the work of Funders Together. Having so many of the right players at the table makes our conversations – and all of our efforts – all the richer and more effective.

-David Wertheimer, Deputy Director at Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Very often a lack of jobs and money is not the cause of poverty, but the symptom. The cause may lie deeper in our failure to give our fellow citizens a fair chance to develop their own capacities, in a lack of education and training, in a lack of medical care and housing, in a lack of decent communities in which to live and bring up their children.

-President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1964 State of the Union Address

Funders Together has given me a platform to engage the other funders in my community. Our local funding community has improved greatly to support housing first models and align of resources towards ending homelessness.

-Leslie Strnisha, Vice President at Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland

Our family foundation convenes local funders and key community stakeholders around strategies to end homelessness in Houston. Funders Together members have been invaluable mentors to us in this effort, traveling to our community to share their expertise and examples of best practices from around the nation.

-Nancy Frees Fountain, Managing Director at The Frees Foundation

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