Campaigning in an era of major political shifts

By Shona Curvers 17 February 2017

Is it a waste of money for philanthropists to invest in research and campaigns on issues that are subject to the whims of a shifting political landscape? 

As Trump settled into the White House following his inauguration on 20 January, The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) was one of the first things on his chopping block. At the time of writing, President Trump had been busy tweeting about this, saying ‘the “unaffordable” Care Act will soon be history!’. Accompanying the attempted Obamacare repeal are additional plans to defund Planned Parenthood. The charity offers healthcare to women and families around the country, and has been the subject of Republican criticism for years.

Obamacare was one of the signature achievements of President Obama’s tenure, and its passing was helped by several years of campaigning. Throughout Obama’s time in office, there have been organisations and individuals around the country researching, campaigning and ultimately working to secure a spot for these issues on the political agenda.

Meanwhile, one of these great contributors to campaigns around women’s reproductive health is Warren Buffett, well-known American businessman and philanthropist. The sheer scale of Buffett’s funding of research into reproductive health has earned him the title of ‘sugar daddy of the entire pro-abortion movement’ in the eyes of some pro-life proponents. But as Trump and his party take control, will all of Buffett’s efforts be for naught?

We are seeing a sea change in the political landscape across the US, Europe and the UK. What does this mean for philanthropists who thought they had a favourable wind behind them, and are now suddenly facing a hurricane from the opposite direction?

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has poured millions into research and campaigning to improve affordable, quality healthcare coverage in the US. In 2010 they were celebrating the win of Obamacare as an important step in this direction, whereas the current political climate presents them with all new obstacles to their progress. On the other hand, philanthropists with a more conservative outlook can prepare to celebrate as they see their interests moving up the agenda, starting with the ‘global gag rule’ being reinstated (again).

Is it a waste of money for philanthropists to invest in organisations who research and campaign on issues that are subject to the whims of a shifting political landscape?

On a fundamental level, it’s important to acknowledge that funding service delivery alone will not lead to social transformation. By funding research and campaigning, philanthropists play a crucial role in challenging the wider context in that their giving takes place to facilitate meaningful social change.

Not to mention, philanthropic giving is valued by many campaigning organisations who are wary of accepting government funding at the risk of compromising their independence. But if you get wins through the political system, it’s important to recognise that all of that can change.

We talk a lot at NPC about being clear about what you want to achieve and working backwards from that (a theory of change approach). But when it comes to political change, you can’t assume that you get your win and then it’s happy ever after. You may still need to be consolidating and working on the case for support, even after it looks like you have won. Campaigning can be much longer term than you think, and the goal you have in mind needs to reflect that.

Otherwise, you can find that the money you spent hasn’t made the impact you wanted. As the CEO of Robert Wood Johnson Foundation stated following the introduction of Obamacare, despite the enormous significance of the legislation, ‘problems of this magnitude do not vanish with a President’s single signature.’

As Donald Trump’s election shows, when you are looking to make social change, you need to be prepared for the unexpected to happen—whether it’s unexpectedly good or unexpectedly bad for your cause.

A version of this blog originally appeared in Alliance Magazine on 30 January 2017.