A Policy Victory Offers a Blueprint for Grant Makers and Advocacy

In todayʼs bitter and polarized political environment, many nonprofits and grant makers may conclude that it is impossible to get things done—and not worth investing in advocacy.

But a major bipartisan victory our foundation and grantees achieved in the Senate is perhaps illustrative of what it takes to succeed, and how grant makers need to think differently about their approach, no matter how daunting the economic downturn or political obstacles.

Ploughshares Fund, which has worked for 30 years to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons, saw a critical opportunity to persuade the Senate to approve an agreement known as the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START.

A year ago, prospects for passage were very uncertain. Americaʼs negotiations with the Russians over the expired START treaty were dragging, battle lines had been drawn in Congress, and opponents of the treaty were painting President Obama as weak and naïve.

We and many of our grantees knew that if the Senate defeated New START, progress on the rest of the nuclear security agenda would stop cold. If we played it right, we could help shape a series of victories that together could fundamentally reorient U.S.—and global—nuclear policy. The window would not remain open for long, however.

In this high-stakes environment, Ploughshares Fund transformed its grant making, relying heavily on the advice Paul Brest, president of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and Hal Harvey, chief executive of the ClimateWorks Foundation, made in their seminal guide to philanthropy, Money Well Spent.

Our approach involved three steps any foundation can copy:

  • Develop a strategy with clear goals.
  • Make grants to nonprofits that can accomplish those goals—and knit them together into a collaborative network.
  • Commit the foundationʼs assets to providing leadership and amplify granteesʼ work.

Or, put more simply: strategy, network, and leadership.

In developing our strategy, we assessed the environment and explored how nonprofits could work to build the political and policy support needed to ratify New START before 2010 ended.

We determined we needed more credible “validators”—former military and national security experts—endorsing the treaty and speaking about the decreasing value of nuclear weapons in U.S. national security. We needed consistent efforts to reach out to editorial boards, opinion editors, and other opinion shapers. And we needed informed and influential constituents active in states with key senators. Those tasks became the focus of our grant making and our own organizational resources.

Ploughshares Fund flipped our foundationʼs usual practice. Rather than focusing on proposals submitted to us, we identified organizations that could meet particular needs and provided resources to encourage our grantees to focus on tasks at which they already excelled.

For example, we tapped the Arms Control Association for its substantive analysis and asked the media-savvy National Security Network to translate the associationʼs briefs into strategic messages. The network and other grantees used these messages to quickly rebut critics and promote positive developments.

We also brought in ReThink Media, a nonprofit communications organization, to develop messages to frame the debate in the news media and to help military officials recruited by the American Security Project place opinion articles in regional papers and brief editorial boards nationwide.

Local groups like Georgia Womenʼs Action for New Directions used the messages from ReThink and the military experts our grantees recruited to win their senatorsʼ support for the treaty.

By the time the Senate voted on New START, our grantees had recruited a battalion of retired military officers and national-security experts, who met privately with senators and spoke in public forums.

Our grantees also placed pro-treaty op-eds and editorials that far outnumbered opposing pieces and were consistently sharing the same message (a significant reversal from the outset of the campaign). New allies, particularly from religious groups, significantly expanded the impact of our granteesʼ grass-roots work.

This specialization—in which each organization focused on its comparative advantages—minimized redundancies, increased efficiency, and promoted cohesion among grantees. As ReThink Media declared in an analysis of the campaign, “In our view, this was among the best-organized and most effective coalitions weʼve been involved with.”

Winning the treaty also required Ploughshares Fundʼs active and consistent efforts to foster and expand collaboration among a broad range of organizations as well as to maintain strategic and tactical unity.

To be sure, we had an advantage other grant makers do not: We are a public foundation, meaning we raise money just like charities do, and we donʼt face the same rules as private foundations. For example, we are allowed to have a full-time lobbyist on our staff, something that wouldnʼt be the case at other foundations.

In early 2010, Ploughshares Fund gathered nearly 50 senior think-tank and advocacy experts to build support for our strategy.

We held similar grand strategy meetings throughout the campaign, and we arranged weekly calls to identify—and assign responsibility for—the most pressing news-media, congressional, and grass-roots actions for the week. Our lobbyist coordinated efforts to reach out to decision makers on Capitol Hill, served as a hub for gathering information about specific Senators, and identified—and filled—gaps in our efforts. Joe Cirincione, Ploughshares Fundʼs board president, served as both a public voice for the campaign and a private conduit for sharing information with Obama administration officials.

The 71 senators who voted in favor of New START had many reasons to do so. They were moved by the testimony and comments of administration officials, the U.S. military leadership, and their colleagues Sen. John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Sen. Richard Lugar, Republican of Indiana, all of whom backed the treaty.

But the role of nonprofit organizations cannot be ignored. Treaty opponents waged an intense political and heavily financed campaign. Throughout 2010 these kinds of campaigns defeated many proposals backed by the Obama administration, Senate leaders, and experts.

It is clear our approach helped tip the balance in favor of treaty approval. In three states where positive op-eds and editorials outnumbered the opposition by more than 15 pieces, six of six Senators voted for the treaty. “It is worth noting that these outcomes are neither assured nor common,” concluded ReThink Media.

Ploughshares Fund spent roughly $3-million during the course of this campaign on grants and other expenses, including broadcast and print advertisements. Staff members devoted significant time to the effort.

Other foundations, such as the Carnegie Corporation of New York, the Colombe Foundation, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, also financed groups involved in this effort, and the Nuclear Threat Initiative, led by former Sen. Sam Nunn, contributed policy and political assets.

Ploughshares Fund could not have assumed this leadership role without our Board of Trustees accepting significant risk and committing extraordinary resources, despite the down economy.

For fiscal years 2010 and 2011, trustees approved withdrawing more than 16 percent from the fundʼs investment pool, while donations remained more or less flat. Trustees were willing to deplete investments because they concluded our chances of success were better than 50-50.

An honest assessment would conclude that we didnʼt accomplish everything we set out to do, nor did we achieve our wins as quickly as planned. This is typical for work on major global threats. Itʼs difficult, it takes a long time, and results are often measured by incremental changes.

But now, after our New START victory, we have undeniable momentum. With each victory, no matter how small, we build support for a world without nuclear weapons and lay the groundwork for the next steps.

That, we believe, is money well spent.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy