Exploring political philanthropy

9 July 2024
SERIES Political philanthropy 7 items

When engaged in purposeful collaboration, philanthropists are uniquely positioned to support governments in driving meaningful reforms and in strengthening public sector initiatives. However, there doesn’t seem to be a consensus on what makes for political philanthropy, as explored in the recent OTT review ‘How do philanthropic donors engage with governments?‘ 

From direct collaboration to more nuanced forms of influence, philanthropies that engage with governments can leverage their resources and connections to bridge knowledge gaps, offer high-quality technical assistance and pilot innovative solutions. 

However, these engagements are not without their complexities. 

As part of our learning partnership with the Open Societies Foundation (OSF), we explored how philanthropic entities engage with governments and identified key insights and lessons to inform organisations looking to become more political in their efforts. 

How is government engagement changing? 

Technical assistance has traditionally been the primary mode of engagement for many philanthropic organisations working with governments. 

Grounded in neutrality, they have traditionally avoided politically sensitive issues, focusing instead on providing expert knowledge, capacity-building, and technical support to improve public sector performance and service delivery.

But the landscape is changing. Given global challenges like pandemic recovery, social justice movements and climate crises, philanthropies are increasingly recognising that strict neutrality may not always be effective or sufficient. 

The burgeoning concept of ‘political philanthropy’ is gaining traction as a way to more robustly engage with governments and address systemic issues. 

What is political philanthropy?

There doesn’t seem to be a single unifying definition, as explored in our review of how philanthropic donors engage with governments. And we’re seeing different perspectives on it from across the philanthropic community, such as with Robert Bosch Stifung and with the Multitudes Foundation

Loosely, however, political philanthropy involves a more explicit and proactive approach, including funding advocacy groups, supporting policy research, engaging in public education campaigns and mobilising grassroots movements. 

Political philanthropy in practice:

  • Expert advice: A process whereby specialised knowledge and insights – in various formats – are provided to governments by external individuals or groups with extensive experience or education in a particular field. This engagement typically involves advising governmental bodies on a range of issues, including policy development, economic strategy, legislative reforms, and programme implementation. ODI’s Budget Strengthening Initiative in Uganda, which played a pivotal role in fiscal decentralisation reforms by deeply integrating personnel into the Ministry of Finance.
  • Embedded technical assistance: A hands-on approach whereby experts are integrated within government institutions, such as ministries or delivery units, often in real-time, to provide expertise and foster capacity-building from the inside. It aims to achieve deeper institutional change and sustainability by allowing advisers to learn the unique context and challenges of the institution and tailor their support accordingly. The Brenthurst Foundation’s Advisory Role in Africa, which shares international best practices and shapes policy for economic growth and stability.
  • Participatory and learning spaces: Platforms designed to assemble high-level public officials, such as presidents or ministers, with dual objectives: 1) to share experiences pertinent to their governmental roles and 2) to collaboratively tackle topics in order to further specific causes or agendas. Known by various labels – such as communities of practice, learning partnerships, and expert forums – these spaces are characterised by shared learning experiences and a collaborative ethos. Club de Madrid, which links former democratic leaders to provide strategic policy advice with support from entities like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
  • Political funding: A financial commitment towards organisations, campaigns, and individuals within the political system, designed to foster a more representative and functional government (Merril & Murdoch, 2020). This approach, particularly recognised in the United States and across Europe, increasingly prioritises systemic reform over partisan victories or ideological dominance, and includes supporting political innovators.

Source: Donor engagement briefing

The objective is to tackle the root causes of social issues, promote social justice and influence the political landscape to achieve long-term, sustainable impact.

Some philanthropic actors are considering explicitly adopting political philanthropy because it allows them to be more assertive and strategic in pushing for systemic changes that align with their mission and values.

This shift towards political philanthropy, however, comes with a new set of challenges. 

Philanthropic entities must address questions of legitimacy as their involvement in policy-making often comes under scrutiny, exposing them and key partners to greater risk. This is of greater importance in the international development sector, where funders are primarily foreign. 

To remain non-partisan, political philanthropy, especially on contentious issues, needs a nuanced approach, one grounded in evidence and experience. 

Examples of philanthropies that have successfully navigated it have showcased that effective advocacy can transcend political affiliations and focus on impactful, evidence-based solutions.

Where can philanthropies add value? 

As political landscapes shift globally, philanthropic organisations have an important role to play in protecting and strengthening democratic processes, and actively shaping the systems within which societies operate. 

Based on our review and consultations, we identified the following five opportunities for philanthropies to add value:

  1. Experience-sharing and sector leadership: Sharing methodologies and outcomes in government engagement provides valuable insights and empowers the sector to operate more effectively.
  2. Embracing and scaling political innovation: Supporting political innovation enhances inclusivity and responsiveness within political systems, driving significant social change.
  3. Political party engagement and institutional credibility: Engaging with political parties to rejuvenate platforms and operations bridges the gap between citizens and representatives.
  4. Adaptation skills and compromise in policy-making: Enhancing adaptation skills among policy-makers through training and workshops supports incremental changes towards effective governance.
  5. Subnational government engagement for comprehensive reform: Engaging with subnational governments drives local reforms and serves as a testing ground for larger-scale changes.

What makes for successful engagement?

Effective engagement requires that philanthropies adopt diverse roles, such as championing marginalised voices, endorsing research-driven insights and facilitating dialogues among stakeholders. 

This multifaceted approach speaks to the importance of maintaining a balance between independence and influence when supporting policy development. 

It also looks at undertaking thoughtful context analysis and recognising important ‘windows of opportunity’, by centring context

Beyond this, some important guidelines for successful political engagement include the following:

1. Be demand-driven 

This approach to philanthropic engagement means aligning with the distinct needs and objectives identified by government partners. It fosters solutions that are inventive and attuned to the intricacies of the local context. 

Unlike supply-driven support, demand-driven support ensures that the advice is relevant, actionable and customised to the situation at hand. 

There is also an opportunity to redress inequities in the provision of support, as outlined by the findings on knowledge inequities.

2. Work ‘with the grain’ 

To navigate local politics and power dynamics effectively, philanthropic entities must integrate their efforts seamlessly with existing political processes, fostering sustainable development while avoiding partisanship. 

This sophisticated approach ensures alignment with current power structures and supports progress within established norms.

3. Be flexible, adaptable and iterative

When engaging with governments, responding to shifting realities on the ground and evolving policy landscapes is essential for philanthropic organisations. Adopting an iterative and embedded learning approach – a continuous cycle of planning, action, reflection and revision – ensures that tactics remain effective over time. 

This adaptability is crucial for maintaining relevance, especially in regions experiencing political turbulence.

4. Build robust partnerships 

Trust-based relationships with government officials at various levels are key as they facilitate open dialogue and capacity-building within government institutions. 

By fostering long-term engagements, building-in transparency through robust communication strategies and evidence-based approaches, and establishing a rapport with policy-makers, philanthropic organisations can effectively contribute to policy development and societal advancement.


This blog is based on findings from ‘How do philanthropic donors engage with governments? A review of donors’ models for government engagement’, by OTT’s Marcela Morales.