Kennette Benedict

The MacArthur Foundation fosters social change as it seeks to bring about a more humane and just society. There are many ways to encourage change, including strategies that shape market forces as well as those that strengthen the non-profit sector. But one of the most effective is to influence government policy. Through its grantmaking the Foundation can help to change policies or regulations, or to influence the direction of government funding at local, state, national and international levels.

Foundations can also shape policy by contributing to fundamental change in the structure and institutions of policymaking. For example, several foundations have awarded grants to reform the laws and practices of campaign financing in the U.S. The goal is to reduce the influence of wealthy interests and individuals on elections. Such reform, it is thought, could change the structure of participation in politics, the result of elections, and eventually, the substance and outcomes of policymaking. In another example, supporting greater participation by women in electoral politics, as India has done with the use of quotas, might be another way to change the structure of participation in policymaking, and subsequent policy outcomes. Whether through support for policy change or for structural transformation, philanthropic grantmaking can have far-reaching consequences.

This discussion paper focuses on foundation efforts to influence policy directions in many of our focus areas. Indeed, our grantmaking strategies include several mechanisms that have the potential to shape public choices. The policymaking process, however, can seem chaotic at times. Understanding the ways that actual decisionmaking departs from traditional models – or conceptualizing the “messiness” of the process – may provide a basis for developing realistic strategies for shaping the policy process. This paper also identifies several of the tools MacArthur uses in constructing grantmaking strategies that contribute to policy change. Finally, the paper describes the tension between the wish to see policy results and the need to remain open to new ideas, and suggests ways that MacArthur can avoid the perils of too narrow a policy focus.

One view of policymaking suggests that the process involves a range of participants, ideas, problems, solutions, networks and interactions constrained by the structure of access (of ideas as well as participants), tradition, precedent, norms, existing policies, financial resources, and deadlines for taking action. Policy outcomes can be viewed, then, as the confluence at a point of action (e.g., vote, budget announcement, authorization process) of streams of these participants, ideas, problems, and solutions shaped by information networks, past history, resources, norms and interpretation. This understanding of the policymaking process departs from more traditional ideas that suggest that policymaking is the search for the best solution to a problem where analysis and information are widely available and all relevant participants are engaged in the process. The alternative view of policymaking as the result of a confluence of streams of ideas, people, and resources that come together at a particular deadline for action is less rational than some may be comfortable with, but may better represent the perceptions of those actually involved in government decisionmaking.

For those wishing to influence or shape a policy outcome, then, attention to the mix of ideas, solutions and participants in a policymaking body may be particularly important, as will the alignment of problems, solutions, participants, information, norms, and the like, at a particular point of action or choice. The grantmaking and convening tools of the Foundation can be utilized to contribute to the mix, and to help bring about the alignment that will result in the reforms we believe will serve the public good.


Philanthropic Tools

The tools most frequently used by MacArthur include:

  • fostering leadership that inspires action, or increasing persuasive capacity;
  • contributing to the development of creative and expert individuals;
  • creating and sustaining policy institutions;
  • funding projects that demonstrate possible solutions;
  • supporting innovative policy-oriented research;
  • convening participants to help resolve conflicts in a policy area;
  • monitoring and publicizing effects, both beneficial and adverse, of practice and policy.

Determining which tools may be more effective than others at any given time is based, in part, on the foundation’s assessment of the existing mix of ideas, problems, solutions and participants in a policy domain, especially in relation to the timing of key decisions.

  • Fostering leadership that inspires action. Where solutions are available, and where a policy debate is ripe for resolution, the Foundation may choose to support leaders who inspire policy action and organizations with substantial persuasive capacity. MacArthur can also establish networks – electronic as well as face-to-face – among leaders and their organizations to raise the visibility of an issue and proposed policy solutions.

The effort to establish an International Criminal Court provides one example. In this case, the confluence of several factors provided an unexpected opportunity to tip the balance of world opinion and leadership to create a new institution. MacArthur was able to fund efforts to help in the design of the new Court, and through intermediaries, to support leaders who were able to inform policymakers in key countries about the Court. These countries subsequently became parties to the treaty establishing the Court.

In the international security area, the need for innovative policies to deal with the break-up of the Soviet Union and the recognized danger from unsecured nuclear weapons was apparent in 1993. The Foundation-supported development in the 1980s of a cooperative security framework, along with funding for a Congressional leadership program where scientific experts could discuss and advocate a new policy solution, led to the establishment of the Cooperative Threat Reduction Program by Senators Sam Nunn and Richard Lugar in 1994.

In the mental health area, MacArthur has supported advocacy efforts for parity between mental health and health benefits in insurance programs offered at the state and federal levels.

  • Supporting innovative policy research. Where we observe that information or new ways of understanding an issue are lacking in the mix of public debate, the Foundation supports research to generate knowledge and clarify issues. MacArthur is committed to bringing evidence into policy the policy process, and places a high premium on ensuring that relevant data and rigorous analysis are made available to policymakers and the public. 

    Support for policy research, therefore, accounts for grantmaking across a number of areas at MacArthur. The purpose of the research is to foster new knowledge and increase understanding, with the assumption that this new understanding will shed light on policy alternatives, increase the number and range of innovative solutions, and help decisionmakers come to more informed choices about policy change.

Foundation support for interdisciplinary studies at the intersection of adolescent development and juvenile justice is an example of MacArthur support for research that has specific policy consequences. The research has drawn attention to the differences in psychological and cognitive development between youth and adults, and suggests that very different standards should apply to the treatment of youth in the justice system.

  • Contributing to the development of creative and expert individuals. On some policy issues we may determine that the number and range of new perspectives are not sufficient to surface an adequate mix of innovative policy options. Where this is the case, MacArthur may choose to draw a wider range of people and ideas to a field based on the theory that a broader range will yield new syntheses and solutions. The purpose is to support those who can articulate and analyze complex problems and craft alternative policy responses. Increasing the number and kinds of new professionals on a field can spark greater creativity in a policy domain. In this way, we encourage unconventional and even iconoclastic perspectives that hold the promise of conceptual breakthroughs and pragmatic solutions. Assisting creative individuals is a long-term strategy that may add new ideas to the mix in the policy process and help shift the terms of policy debate, eventually leading to new policy outcomes.

In the international peace and security area, MacArthur is providing a range of opportunities for scientists and engineers to engage in analyzing, criticizing, formulating, and implementing international and national security policy. By supporting university centers, the creation of new faculty positions, and providing for advanced-training fellowships, the Foundation is contributing to expertise in the U.S. and abroad. The aim is to increase the numbers of expert individuals and change the mix to include more scientists and engineers in public policymaking on international security.

  • Establishing or strengthening policy institutions. A larger number of authoritative institutions to provide credible information increases the chances that positive reforms will be entertained by policymakers. A Foundation initiative is more likely to succeed if there are a sufficient number of well-regarded institutions that can promote and implement decisions in that policy domain. Contributing to policy institutions that are the source of respected policy analysis can have a lasting impact in a field, guaranteeing sustained capacity to address issues, providing a magnet for talent, as well as a resource for public policymakers and other leaders. Policy institutes can also serve as institutional “memories” in some policy domains, storing past ideas and policy solutions that can be cycled into policy debates at future times and tipping points.

A grant to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities has strengthened the monitoring of changes in the U.S. federal budget and in fiscal policy and their effects on livelihoods. In another area, MacArthur’s grantmaking on human rights has expanded and sustained the work of advocacy groups and provided a more secure institutional base for continuous monitoring of human rights abuses. In the international peace and security field, the National Security Archive, established with seed grants from MacArthur and Ford, has used the Freedom of Information Act to uncover aspects of U.S. foreign policy long kept secret, as well as opening archives in the former eastern bloc after the fall of the Soviet Union.

  • Funding projects that demonstrate possible solutions. When the Foundation determines that solutions are available but are not being acted upon, the Foundation is able to fund demonstration projects to show how new proposed policies can be implemented. Such projects can also serve to make a stronger case for a policy solution and provide opportunities to learn from the experimentation that a model project offers. The goal is to provide a model for other funding agencies to support—either through government programs or through private sources as the market steps in to scale up an effort.

In conservation and sustainable development, for example, much of MacArthur’s funding is awarded to projects that demonstrate how natural resources can be conserved at the same time that they can provide livelihoods for those living in fragile ecosystems. The Locally Managed Marine Area, that MacArthur helped initiate with a grant in 1999 to the University of the South Pacific, is an example of the demonstration effect that a successful project can have. The LMMAs show how locally-managed projects can successfully monitor the health of marine resources, as well as the socioeconomic impacts of their efforts to conserve fisheries. In this case, the success of one marine conservation project in Verata, Fiji, led to the development of similar projects in 30 sites throughout Fiji. As of mid-2003, 23 project sites supported by MacArthur are part of the LMMA network. Along with seven additional sites, these represent seven per cent of the 410 traditional fishing zones of the coastal area of Fiji. Presentations of the results of these projects has led to the endorsement by political leaders in Fiji of the LMMA concept for planning in all 410 fishing zones—the entire fishing area of the Fiji archipelago.

  • Convening meetings. The Foundation also occasionally works in policy domains where debates have become polarized and even bitterly partisan. In these areas, and at key moments in the policy process, the Foundation is able to convene meetings of interested parties with disparate perspectives, with the explicit aim of bridging differences and achieving consensus.

MacArthur entered at a critical moment in public decisions about mental health treatment when it convened meetings of representatives from the National Institute of Justice, the National Institutes of Mental Health, the Center for Mental Health Services, independent experts and advocates. Policies were about to be enacted that would have used mental health courts and law enforcement agencies to determine rules for outpatient treatment and commitments to mental health facilities. The meetings that MacArthur held postponed the enactment of these policies, led to an agreement to evaluate existing community-based treatment alternatives, and eventually resulted in policies that did not depend on justice agencies for implementation.

In sum, the tools that the Foundation employs in a policy arena will depend on our assessment of the mix of available solutions and problems, of leaders to inspire action, of credible information and interpretations. The strategy we adopt will depend, as well, on our judgment about the point in the policy process where the Foundation has the most leverage to align people, problems, and solutions to achieve an outcome that yields the greatest good for the public. Our choice of tools may also depend on our willingness to risk the Foundation’s credibility in pursuit of a policy goal. The rest of this paper identifies some of the tensions that may arise as the Foundation enters policy debates as a donor and as a convener.


Tensions between guiding principles and achievement of policy goals

The MacArthur Foundation fosters creative leadership, and provides support for authoritative, non-partisan inquiry and research. We also seek to contribute to vigorous debate, supported by evidence, and based on the assumption that such debate will yield better policy outcomes, while strengthening democratic institutions and practices. These three broad principles of MacArthur’s grantmaking – foster leadership, support authoritative research, and contribute to rigorous debate – lead us to help identify new problems and develop potential solutions. We support action and research to draw attention to neglected issues, clarify the consequences, costs and benefits of policy alternatives, and surface innovative and practical solutions. The Foundation may be able to have the greatest impact when relatively few players are involved in the policy domain, positions have not solidified, and intellectual leadership can have a significant effect on the design of social change agendas.

The Foundation also wishes to achieve results in its grantmaking. The policy research and debate that we foster is intended to lead to policy outcomes—ones that address the societal problems that the Foundation has identified. We understand that, if the policy research we support is to be relevant to government decisionmaking, it will likely draw conclusions and make recommendations based on the evidence. We also expect that leaders and organizations supported by MacArthur will take part in the policy debate. Yet, proposing specific solutions may be perceived as taking a position on policy proposals and may be interpreted as being partisan, especially in the current political environment. Indeed, the more experienced and knowledgeable the individuals and institutions we support, the more confident we may be in the policy recommendations being offered, and the more determined we and the Foundation’s grantees may be to argue for a particular policy remedy.

In the area of juvenile justice, for instance, there is a variety of opinions about how best to treat juvenile offenders in the criminal justice system. Where especially violent crimes are committed, some suggest that treating young people as adults results in equal justice—the same crime committed by different individuals should be treated in a similar manner. Others argue that young people are at a different stage of cognitive development from adults, and so should be treated differently; taking into account the specific condition and characteristics of the individual, and therefore the potential for rehabilitation, is necessary to achieve justice. The Foundation chooses to support those on the side of the issue that young people should be treated differently from adults for the same crime. It does so based on recommendations from research it has funded suggesting that young people have different competencies than adults, and therefore, should be treated differently in the justice system.

Our support for specific outcomes may appear to place us at odds with our initial guiding principles—ones that lead us to favor non-partisan inquiry and vigorous debate among a range of interests with differing perspectives. Some may view our support for an organization that persuasively argues for a particular policy solution in a public debate as ideologically driven. While this conclusion may be inaccurate and provocative, these views need not trouble us as long as we know that the policy solution was arrived at through open inquiry based on sound evidence, and that we have not supported lobbying activities.

Perhaps the greater danger is that support for a particular policy solution may lead us, as an institution, to take a position—either explicitly or implicitly—that closes us off from considering new viewpoints and new ways of operating. We will have become participants in the very partisan battles that we believe to be counterproductive. The rigidity that develops may have both psychological and institutional dimensions. As individuals, we may become wedded to a particular policy position and unable to consider alternatives; as an institution, we run the risk of being identified with a particular orientation, and may come to find that only those who share that orientation will approach us with ideas and proposals. We will have closed ourselves off from sources of fresh ideas and change, and so may lose our comparative advantage in the policy process.

How might we guard against such a troubling outcome? First, we treat policy goals as hypotheses. In general, the Foundation understands recommendations for specific policy changes as working hypotheses about how to solve problems. We are aware that, as hypotheses, such recommendations can be refuted by future research results or by events. More experience, new evidence, different methods, new perspectives and interpretations, and new ways of thinking may lead us to conclude that an initial policy solution, and one that we may have been supporting through our grantmaking, is no longer appropriate or effective, or has unintended consequences detrimental to our intended purposes.

Second, we have mechanisms to encourage cross-area and cross-disciplinary conversations. General-purpose foundations, like MacArthur, make grants in several different policy domains. From housing policy to school reform, to population, conservation, and peace and security, our grantmaking leads us to be informed by a wide range of substantive experts and practitioners. One of the benefits of such diversity is the range of ideas to which we are exposed and the promise of innovation from cross-cutting and interdisciplinary discussion. Indeed, we are developing new mechanisms to capitalize on the diversity of perspectives among staff and advisers. For example, new staff committees, purposefully designed to reflect a range of disciplinary orientations, are intended to provide forums where systematic thinking can challenge conventional orientations and serendipity may stimulate innovation.

So, while we may choose to support one path to change over another at any given time, we also strive to remain open to new evidence and challenging insights, even if they do not confirm our current, and favorite, hypotheses. This orientation to the public policy process—treating policy goals as hypotheses, focusing on the long-term, and nurturing inter-area collaboration—helps us fashion grantmaking strategies based on consideration of a range of ideas, options and projects.

There are questions, however, that may still need addressing on a case-by-case basis as we put these principles into practice. We suggest a few that have stimulated discussion among staff:

  1. Should the Foundation take a public stand or embrace a specific set of policy recommendations for a particular policy change? Are there times when the weight of the MacArthur name should be placed in favor of a particular policy option?
  2. Do grant recipients speak for the Foundation? If the policy analysis and recommendations of organizations that MacArthur funds come together to support a particular view, then is the Foundation, in fact, taking a policy position?
  3. How might we treat conflicts among policy hypotheses within the Foundation? Or conflicts between policy advocacy strategies of grantees?
  4. Will the credibility of the Foundation be damaged if MacArthur is viewed as either conservative or liberal?



The Foundation employs several different tools to help shape public policymaking: fostering leadership that inspires action and supporting persuasive organizations; contributing to creative and expert individuals; creating and sustaining policy institutions; funding projects that demonstrate possible solutions; supporting innovative policy-oriented research; convening participants to help resolve conflicts in a policy area, monitoring policy impacts; and disseminating information. How we use these tools to help shift alignments of policymakers, problems, solutions, and financial resources depends, in part, on our abilities to remain open to new perspectives, to engage with those who disagree with us, and to be mindful of the long-term goals and underlying values of the Foundation.