Policy work. It’ll break your heart.

By policy work I mean the construction of public policy positions—more spending, less spending, better spending, better targeting, smarter monitoring, smarter regulation, deregulation, whatever—and then, mindful of (and well within) the limits placed on nonprofits and their funders, the mobilization of support from both elite and grassroots groups.

The potential pay-off is huge. When you have relatively few dollars and you want to solve big problems, policy work is one of very few possible pathways. A change in public policy can instantly scale a good idea, and can unleash vastly more resources than any private source could muster. If, for example, you’re trying to improve educational outcomes for kids in villages and cities throughout Uganda, you need the Ugandan government itself to take the lead, perhaps persuaded by a combination of evidence and advocacy from those outside government.

But far from being immune to the vicissitudes of politics, policy work is almost entirely subject to the rise and fall of particular people, parties, and platforms. No matter how rigorous the analysis you use to develop a policy position, and no matter how many problems it might elegantly solve, its fate lies in the hands of politicians, and voters—blue, red, green, rainbow-hued. That’s a high-risk place to be. One step forward? At the next election, you could well be three steps back.

If every election is a roll of the political dice that puts at risk years of investment in public policy research and advocacy, how can funders contribute to real and sustained progress? I don’t have any silver bullets, but can at least offer a few ideas that we’re trying within the Global Development and Population Program.

Movements matter. While voters and the politicians they elect can shift preferences and positions at the drop of a hat, in almost any issue area it’s possible to find and strengthen the communities of people who have a deep and abiding commitment. These are the people who identify themselves with the issue, who don’t think of it as a job but instead as a cause that affects them in personal ways, and to which they enthusiastically dedicate their brainpower, energy, and time. Movements need patient funding, investment in leadership, and encouragement to refresh themselves as context changes. That patience, investment, and encouragement are vital, because without movements advocacy efforts are ephemeral.

Knowledge lives on. We’re investing in institutions that are not captured by a single advocacy agenda, but rather by a mission of support for evidence-informed policy. These include but are not limited to think tanks, which conduct and communicate economic and social research across a range of policy domains, from labor to taxes to social safety nets. As research institutions, they contribute to cumulative bodies of evidence—for example, about the relationship between investments in opportunities for women and economic outcomes at the society-wide level. As institutions that work on multiple topics, they are also able to respond to the questions and opportunities of the day.

Support people who are doing real things, regardless of the political climate. The drive toward large-scale impact almost inevitably points in the direction of policy work and away from support to front-line service delivery. That was certainly my own inclination coming into the Foundation three and a half years ago. But I’ve come to appreciate very much the value of also supporting organizations whose work is far from the low-oxygen policy zone, close to the ground where people need help. In our case this includes, for instance, the organizations that are expanding the provision of family planning services to women around the world, and citizen groups working in their own communities to solve problems. That’s not most of what we do, but it has intrinsic value and serves as a continuing reminder that while our scale may be small relative to the need, we do have the ability to get something accomplished without depending on favorable political winds.

These directions point away from short-term, specific, headline-grabbing policy asks. They point toward work that takes a long time and can rarely claim big wins. It might be harder to love, but it won’t break your heart.