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When to Speak Out: Three Questions Foundations Might Consider

Woman with megaphone

In the days following the Trump administration’s Jan. 27 executive order to ban immigrants from seven predominantly Muslim countries, many social sector leaders confronted the question of whether to speak publicly about their organizations’ perspectives on the ban. One group of more than 190 philanthropic and philanthropy-supporting organizations decided to sign a joint statement that criticized the executive order and called for policies that “reflect our nation’s founding principles, promote cohesion and inclusion, instill hope and show compassion.” Other philanthropic organizations chose not to speak out directly against the ban but publicly re-articulated their institutional values to show support for affected people or demonstrated their concerns in some other way, while others chose not to be involved.

Given the significant changes underway to federal, state and local policies and budgets, many social sector organizations can safely assume that they will continue to face this question of whether to publicly voice their opinions on issues. With each opportunity and for each organization, the answers will be different. The question we can all tackle together is how to assess when to speak up.

When to Speak Out Questions

As an organization focused on the strategy and implementation of large-scale change, we know the importance of communications to making an impact. Our research on why some change initiatives achieve transformational results and others don’t confirmed that communications must be viewed as a critical, strategic function. Strategic communications can help raise awareness, change attitudes and motivate people to take action.

Foundations recognize the value of communications in their work, as demonstrated by participation in groups like The Communications Network. Yet, answering the question of whether to speak out on an issue can be challenging. Though some foundation leaders may have deep knowledge and feel equipped to speak on a topic, others may not because they aren’t on the front lines. Foundations may also be wary of jeopardizing their credibility or key relationships with board members, staff and even grantees. When it comes to policy advocacy, not all foundations have the technical capacity to effectively engage in this work or an understanding of the law that bounds what they can and cannot do: Private foundations, for example, may not engage in lobbying except in cases of self-defense, though they can more freely engage in other forms of advocacy and provide certain types of grants to advocacy nonprofits. (For more resources on how foundations can effectively and legally advocate, explore the Council on Foundations’ Advocacy Toolkit and Bolder Advocacy’s Resources for Foundations Funding and Supporting Advocacy.)

We’ve been asking our partners to share how they assess what to do in these situations. Everyone we talked with spoke, whether directly or indirectly, to the reality and role of power. Having both significant financial resources and an influential organizational agenda under their control, foundations sometimes have more power than their grantees and the communities served by their grantees. Those we spoke with emphasized the opportunity to both give that power away and leverage it to amplify the voices of others.

We don’t want to speak on [grantees’] behalf but reflect what they’re saying through what we’re saying,” Nicky Goren, CEO of the Washington, DC-based Meyer Foundation, said.

Through these conversations and our client experiences, we’ve developed a series of questions that can help foundations determine when to publicly speak up, out, or against a policy proposal:


1. Will it advance your mission or cause?

• Could the issue affect your desired outcomes?

John Jackson, CEO of the education-focused Schott Foundation for Public Education, asks this question: Will the issue impact a student’s opportunity to learn? Sometimes this leads Schott to broaden its focus. An issue like housing can greatly impact a student’s opportunity to learn and drive Schott to speak out.

In its public comments, The Annie E. Casey Foundation addresses policy issues through the lens of how they could affect the foundation’s primary focus: children. In its recent statements on the immigration ban and health care, the Casey Foundation drew a clear connection between the policy and its potential impacts on children.

• Can you influence an audience that has power over the issue?

Clarifying your intended audience is critical. For example, you might focus on those who can put pressure on decision-makers, other funders, or another audience that can mobilize for or against a proposal.

2. Are you the right messenger?

• What is your role as a foundation?

What role do you see your foundation playing in making social change? Anchor your decision in this, even if it requires revisiting how you see that role. For example, do you see your foundation as a policy advocate or catalyst for mobilization?

• Are you a credible source on this topic? 

Your foundation’s credibility on the issue could come from a variety of sources including:

1. Lived experience: This may come from authentically sharing your own experience, as a leader or institution, with an issue. Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, for example, has been able to use his own experience as a Black gay man to establish credibility when he speaks or writes on the topic of inequality.

2. Evidence: People outside the philanthropic space may look to your foundation as an expert on issues where you’ve conducted significant research and/or amassed a body of evidence.

3. Connections: You may find that grantees or partners can bring expertise or insights that lend credibility. For example, The Annie E. Casey Foundation often consults with grantees, partners and other experts to help shape policy reports before releasing them.

• Will speaking out support your stakeholders in a way they want to be supported?

Clarify whether your stakeholders—grantees and the communities they seek to serve—want and expect you to use your voice to support their work, and whether speaking out will amplify or undermine their power and voice. In 2015 the Meyer Foundation conducted a strategic planning process. Through extensive conversations with stakeholders, it became clear to foundation leaders that stakeholders wanted the foundation to use its voice to amplify the work on the ground. With this clarity, Meyer has been able to respond confidently as issues have arisen.

Sometimes your role might be best focused on helping grantees build their own advocacy skills and capacity. One of the ways The Annie E. Casey Foundation supports grantees is through boosting their ability to effectively advocate for policy change.

Sometimes our job is to pay for the microphone, not to speak into it,” Patrick McCarthy, CEO of the Casey Foundation, said.

3. Are you sharing the right message?

• Do you have a clear purpose or call to action?

To make your voice count, you need one simple and clear ask. After hearing the responses Betsy DeVos gave during her first Senate confirmation hearing for Secretary of Education, Schott Foundation CEO John Jackson released a statement on DeVos’ qualifications. His call to action to the Senate was clear, even if not stated outright: Do not confirm DeVos as Secretary of Education. (After DeVos’ successful confirmation, Schott followed with a call to action to continue fighting for public education and equity in opportunity for all students.)

• Are you communicating in a way that will resonate with your intended audience?

Various studies, including The Annie E. Casey Foundation-sponsored FrameWorks Institute research on effectively communicating about issues of juvenile justice, have found that people respond best to messages when they hear values that they support quickly followed by solutions. As such, the Casey Foundation is strategic in how it frames its messaging on issues.


The decision on whether to speak out doesn’t follow a simple formula. It requires reflection, discussion and often the exploration of privilege—the privilege inherent in deciding about whether to speak about an issue in the first place.

We welcome your thoughts. Please share your experiences below.

Photo courtesy of looking4poetry.

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Amy Celep

About Amy Celep

As CEO of Community Wealth Partners, Amy Celep guides the organization’s strategic direction and oversees its more than 20 employees in their efforts to support partners in solving problems at the magnitude they exist. Amy was named to this role in April 2010, and since then has led the organization in developing and implementing a new strategy for greater impact, while achieving 50 percent revenue growth and securing a marquee list of partners. See Amy's full bio

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