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Foundations and Policy Engagement: Insights in Their Own Words, Part 3

Date: July 30, 2020

Ethan McCoy

Former Senior Writer and Editor, CEP

Naomi Orensten

Senior Director of Programs and Strategy, Dorot Foundation

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How Foundations are Collaborating with Others to Achieve Their Public Policy Goals

This post is the third in “Foundations and Policy Engagement: Insights in Their Own Words,” a five-part series on the CEP Blog. (Read Post 1 here, Post 2 here, Post 4 here, and Post 5 here.)

The COVID-19 pandemic; the disproportionate health and economic impact of the pandemic on communities of color; racism laid bare by the murders of George Floyd and countless other Black people by the police. These systemic challenges, along with so many others, require policy solutions — solutions that philanthropy is uniquely positioned to contribute to.

It is especially timely, then, that recent research from CEP, Policy Influence: What Foundations are Doing and Why, sheds light on how foundations think about and approach their efforts to influence public policy. For our team at CEP who worked on this study, the findings of our analysis gave rise to several key questions about how foundations can effectively engage in policy. We believe these questions are important for foundation staff and boards to candidly discuss, especially in this moment. So we asked several funders active in the policy realm — in a variety of ways, across a variety of issue areas, utilizing a variety of policy tools — to share their thoughts.

In each of the five posts in this blog series, we share these funders’ responses in the hopes that their insights can help others engage more — and more effectively — in the policy realm, and to advance a more nuanced discussion of philanthropic engagement in policy.

We are grateful to the 14 foundations sharing their perspectives in this series: Blue Shield of California Foundation, The Brainerd Foundation, Community Foundation Boulder County, Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, The Healing Trust, Helios Education Foundation, Jacob & Valeria Langeloth Foundation, Lumina Foundation, MacArthur Foundation, Missouri Foundation for Health, REACH Healthcare Foundation, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Walton Family Foundation, and W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Question: How and why is your foundation collaborating with others — grantees, other funders — to achieve a shared policy goal?

The Healing Trust

Meredith Sullivan Benton, Vice-President, Programs and Advocacy

In 2019, we decided to use the Trust’s influence to engage in advocacy alongside our grantee partners. This type of advocacy — an extension of our mission and previous advocacy grantmaking — came at the request of our grantee partners and peer groups. Engaging in advocacy allows us to focus on the root causes of the issues that our grantee partners work to address with support from our grants programs. (The Trust also supports advocacy via grantmaking and provides technical assistance to build grantee partners’ advocacy capacity.)

Even prior to our efforts beginning last year, the Trust has listened to and collaborated with our grantee partners to support policy-oriented work. For example, our grantee partners told us that they needed access to accurate, nonpartisan data to help them as they worked on policy change. They pointed out that our state, Tennessee, was one of very few states that lacked a nonpartisan, public policy research center. In response to this, we incubated and launched The Sycamore Institute in 2015, whose research is now being used by nonprofits and policymakers throughout Tennessee. We are proud of their work to support data-driven decision-making in our community.

To enhance our connection with policymakers, we have hosted site visits with grantee partners serving their districts. Our grantee partners appreciate connecting with a policymaker, and the policymakers appreciate gaining a local contact that can serve as a resource to them. In addition to these collaborative site visits, we also host regular convenings with grantee partners where they jointly develop advocacy goals and strategies.

Policymakers appreciate engaging with the Trust for several reasons: 1) we aren’t asking for money, as we have our own endowment, and 2) while we talk policy, as a private foundation we cannot voice an opinion on any specific bill. Policymakers also appreciate the value we add to their communities by supporting more than 100 nonprofits in 40 counties in Middle Tennessee.

Jacob & Valeria Langeloth Foundation

Andrea Fionda, Director of Programs, and Scott Moyer, President

The Langeloth Foundation has found that investments in funder collaboratives in various issue areas have enabled us to learn more about an issue area, to meet other funders, and to be exposed to a greater array of projects.

For example, the Foundation is a member of the Fund for a Safer Future, a gun violence prevention collaborative, that has allowed our small staff to learn the lay of the land in what is a relatively complex topic. It has also given the Foundation much greater reach into the field than we would have if we were on our own.

In addition, in the Foundation’s funding strategy, we try to approach areas from a variety of avenues, which leads to collaborating with others. In our funding aimed at stopping the use of solitary confinement, for example, the Foundation supports efforts in advocacy, culture change, media, and lifting up the voices of the directly impacted.

Lumina Foundation

Jesse O’Connell, Director of Federal Policy, and Scott Jenkins, Director of State Policy

Collaboration is key because policy success greatly benefits from policymakers hearing a clear and consistent message from constituents. By working together from a shared set of principles and simple set of evidence-backed actions, funders can give transparent guidance to both grantees and other funders, as well as policymakers themselves.

MacArthur Foundation

Mijo Vodopic, Senior Program Officer, Climate Solutions Program

The longer we delay aggressive and durable climate action, the more challenges we will face in reaching climate neutrality by mid-century. One way that we can significantly improve emissions trajectories is to expand global access to energy-efficient, climate-friendly cooling. Climate-friendly cooling means switching away from certain refrigerant gases with high global warming potential, namely those identified in the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol.

Building on the momentum to swap out these harmful gases, a diverse group of 17 foundations and individual donors, including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, came together to help make cooling equipment more energy-efficient, and thereby reduce the demand for energy, which most often is produced from fossil fuels. A dual course of action to make cooling both more climate-friendly and more energy-efficient has the potential to reduce the projected global temperature increase by 1°C in the coming decades.

This group of funders, called the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program (K-CEP), formed in 2017 to help accelerate major changes to arguably one of the cornerstones of modern life. Space cooling and refrigeration provides an essential service for billions of individuals and businesses around the world by keeping vaccines stable, food nutritious, homes comfortable, students focused, and workers productive. Improved access to cooling is also critical for the achievement of a number of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, namely those related to health, poverty reduction, education, shelter, gender, and energy access. K-CEP is an initiative that emboldens governments, businesses, and advocates alike to align their policies, investments, and expertise to work collectively in building a better, climate-stable world.

Without the trusted partnership of foundation and individual donors, the opportunity to drive policy changes that both make substantive improvements in people’s lives and address climate change would have been missed. Importantly, the partnering donors committed to quickly deploying the funding to match countries’ commitments to rapidly transition refrigerants. In doing this, the foundations and donors aimed to model the scale and speed being asked of the developing countries making changes to their policies.

It was only through the collective, sustained effort by these 17 funders that one of — if not the largest — philanthropic energy efficiency funds was created and deployed.

Missouri Foundation for Health

Alexandra Rankin, Director of Government Affairs, and Kristy Klein Davis, Chief Strategy Officer

Effective policy work requires input and commitment from a broad audience of stakeholders, including grassroots advocates, community-based organizations, businesses, government agencies, and “grasstops” leaders. It’s important that we leverage existing resources and amplify voices to move the needle on policy change. The role of strategic communications in generating systems change cannot be understated. While adequate investment is always critical to any policy movement, human capital and collective action are what shapes a campaign. Ensuring that human stories and experiences are not only highlighted, but also inform the overall strategy, is a top priority for all of MFH’s policy work.

Walton Family Foundation

Daphne Moore, Director of Communications

We believe collaboration is critical to creating social change, and so the Foundation works hard to be a convener and a catalyst for creating coalitions.

Collaboration helps leverage more funding to solve problems and raises more voices in a chorus for change. At the Foundation, we form or join alliances in all of our program areas — it’s a vital part of how we operate. For example, in our Environment program, the Foundation helped bring together a diverse coalition of conservation groups, business groups, and industry to build broad support for Louisiana’s coastal restoration plan. The Coastal Master Plan is a blueprint for hope — and one of the most significant conservation opportunities of our lifetime. Similarly, in the Colorado River basin, we co-founded the Water Funder Initiative, bringing together several significant funders — including the Rockefeller Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation — to work on water sustainability in the West.

In our K-12 Education Program, we’re working right now with grantees and funders across the country to address the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on students and schools — and to help them prepare for the big changes needed to adapt our education system to overcome this crisis.

Another example of collaboration is the work we’ve been doing in our Home Region program to rally support among funders to increase economic opportunity and break the cycle of poverty in the Delta region of Arkansas and Mississippi. The Foundation convened the Delta Philanthropy Forum to strengthen relationships and share information on philanthropic investments in the Delta. Our aim is to lay a foundation for future cooperation — and greater resources — that helps break the cycle of persistent poverty in the region and creates opportunity for people to realize their full potential.

Naomi Orensten is director, research, at CEP. Ethan McCoy is senior writer, development and communications, at CEP.

Editor’s Note: CEP publishes a range of perspectives. The views expressed here are those of the authors, not necessarily those of CEP.

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