Check out CEP’s new searchable database of resources for individuals and grantmakers.

Contact Us



Foundations and Policy Engagement: Insights in Their Own Words, Part 5

Date: August 18, 2020

Ethan McCoy

Former Senior Writer and Editor, CEP

Naomi Orensten

Senior Director of Programs and Strategy, Dorot Foundation

Never Miss A Post

Share this Post:

Change Realized: How Foundations are Contributing to Public Policy Successes

This post is the final 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 3 here, and Post 4 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: What are some policy wins your foundation has contributed to?

Brainerd Foundation

Keiki Kehoe, Co-Director

As a limited life foundation dedicated to protecting the air, land, and water of our region, engaging in public policy has been core to our mission. From our inception, our trustees understood the importance of policy and never wavered in their commitment to be bold, visionary, and persistent. Looking back on 25 years of grantmaking, the achievements of our policy grantees give us hope for what is possible in the years to come.

Our approach to policy has included advocacy, litigation, and voter education. Investments in protecting critical ecosystems have resulted in major public lands bills signed into law by four successive presidents. At the state and local level, our grantees have made significant policy gains by working with governors, legislators, agencies, and local elected officials. They have addressed carbon in the atmosphere, blocked the expansion of the fossil fuel industry, advanced the development of clean energy, increased protections for clean air and water, and expanded access to public lands. Legal groups made sure that government, industries, and private citizens understood and followed the laws that protect our air, land, and water. And voter education groups made sure that people understood the consequences of elections and were able to exercise their right to vote.

We understand why some foundations are reluctant to engage in public policy — it is hard, often messy, and unpredictable. Yet our investments in policy have led to significant gains in every part of our region. Among the many factors that contributed to our success, four key elements stand out.

First, whenever possible, we provided the kind of support our grantees needed most­: general operating funds without unnecessary restrictions. The Alliance for Justice helped us understand the rules governing private foundations, and our own lawyer regularly reviewed foundation documents to make sure we were complying with the law. This allowed us to be bold in our grantmaking.

Second, we understood the necessity of building political will to achieve policy change. This meant supporting organizations engaged in non-partisan civic engagement. Each year we see more elected leaders standing up for conservation values and championing the protection of our air, land, and water. Without political will, policy efforts are futile.

Third, we understood that progress doesn’t happen in a straight line. Every policy effort has surges and setbacks, and foundations have a reputation for developing fatigue. We chose our grantees carefully and invested deeply, bolstering their ability to be effective and resilient. Many of our policy grantees have received consistent funding from us for the better part of two decades.

Finally, we knew that nobody does this work alone. We partnered with other foundations to ensure that our grantees had the resources they needed. And we provided support for our grantees to collaborate with the partners and allies in ways that made them stronger and more successful.

When we chose 2020 as the year to close our foundation, we never imagined that our sunset would coincide with a global pandemic and an historical movement for racial justice. The events of recent months underscore the fact that policies at the local, state, and federal level determine who lives, who dies, and who pays the price for our failure to enact laws and policies that reflect our values.

It is incumbent on all of us to roll up our sleeves and do all we can to build the world we want to see.

Community Foundation Boulder County

Chris Barge, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives

Our education advocacy work has led to winning school funding campaigns that have helped double full-day kindergarten and preschool opportunities across our county. Our advocacy for nonprofits has also led to ballot issues that have secured funding for safety net services and for capital projects for nonprofits.

As we have begun to advocate with rather than for those most impacted by inequity, we have also seen some policy wins led by a nonprofit that began as a program at our Foundation. ELPASO (Engaged Latino Parents Advancing Student Outcomes) now employs community organizers who have helped parents advocate for K-12 school district policies against racial bias, bullying, and youth drug use.

Lastly, our stance in support of a complete and accurate 2020 Census count is driving our participation numbers in the right direction during an incredibly challenging year, given the social distancing requirements of the COVID-19 pandemic. Though it is too early to call this a definitive “win,” we are encouraged by the results we are seeing thus far.

Haas, Jr. Fund

Cathy Cha, President

For much of its history, the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund was a funder of organizations and initiatives providing direct services to vulnerable populations, primarily in the San Francisco Bay Area. At the same time, we’ve come to realize we can have outsized impact by working with partners to change policies and systems.

One great example is our work on marriage equality. When we started investing in that issue in the early 2000s, many people thought progress wasn’t possible. But over the following 15 years, we worked with other funders and partners in the movement on a state-by-state campaign that changed hearts and minds across the country. The result was a historic Supreme Court ruling affirming marriage equality from coast to coast.

Another example comes from our work on immigrant rights. For a long time, the Haas, Jr. Fund was a local funder of Bay Area groups working with Latino workers and their families. With the adoption of anti-immigrant policies in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., over many years, we saw how immigrant communities in our backyard — and particularly undocumented immigrants — were facing huge problems including deportation and family separation, as well as a lack of job opportunities and critical services.

In the early 2000s, we began to work with movement and government partners to help California make the shift to become one of the most pro-immigrant states in the nation. Today in California, undocumented immigrants can get driver’s licenses, access in-state tuition and financial aid, and apply for licensure as accountants, healthcare workers, and in other positions — and it’s all because funders, nonprofits, and other partners came together to say that California should support and strengthen our immigrant communities. (In tandem with this work, the Haas, Jr. Fund has also supported undocumented young people to organize and lead the fight for DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals)).

The Haas, Jr. Fund continues to support critical services for people and communities in need, but policy and systems change is now an overriding focus for us. Once our Board saw the impact we could have through this kind of work, there was no going back.

Of course, we didn’t do any of this alone. By joining with like-minded funders, and by lifting up the voices of people who are closest to the problems we want to solve, we’ve found that philanthropy can make a lasting difference on critical issues facing communities we all care about.

The Healing Trust

Meredith Sullivan Benton, Vice-President, Programs and Advocacy

Our local school district in Nashville, Tennessee had trauma-informed-school staff positions that were all grant funded. When the grants were ending, however, the positions needed to move to the district’s operating budget. But chronic underfunding was preventing that from happening. So, we convened other funders to create a joint fund that provided a one-year match to transition the positions over two years into the district’s operating budget. We rallied public support for the work and communicated directly with School Board members and Metro Council members for the financial support. We were successful in securing the match funding and this year, all of the positions were funded in the operating budget without private support.

Another example of a policy win the Trust has contributed to is our role in helping refugees have a home in Tennessee. Last year, Tennessee’s Governor was considering ending refugee resettlement in the state. We advocated for the Governor and his advisors to meet with nonprofit leaders who work with refugees and hear from them firsthand. This led to several meetings where our grantee partners could meet directly with policymakers and advocate for the continuation of the state’s program that was on the chopping block. The Governor announced late last year that he had changed his mind and would continue to support refugee resettlement in Tennessee.

Helios Education Foundation

Charles Hokanson, Senior Vice President, Florida Community Engagement, and Janice Palmer, Vice President, Public Policy & Government Affairs

Helios Education Foundation’s College Knowing & Going Initiative is a college and career readiness program that has invested in the potential of thousands of low-income, Latino students in Arizona. At its core, a five-year grant provided approximately 40 percent of Arizona juniors and seniors with no-cost access to the ACT, assistance with college applications, and assistance with completing financial aid forms.

Evaluation of this five-year initiative found that postsecondary access is aided by ensuring all students take the ACT exam. Armed with this proof of concept, Helios met with elected leaders, including the Arizona Governor’s Office, key legislators, and the State Board of Education (SBE). These conversations ultimately informed legislative action in 2018 that launched the state’s College Readiness Pilot, which ensured 100 percent of Arizona’s juniors were able to take the ACT in 2018-19. This public/private partnership gave further confidence to state leaders to enact legislation covering the cost of every Arizona high school junior to take a college readiness exam, ensuring equity and access.

At the same time, Helios engaged as a thought leader with the SBE as it crafted its A-F School Accountability system. The result was the inclusion of a College and Career Readiness Indicator for high school, in which ACT exam growth and FAFSA completion rates were included. This incentivizes high schools to focus on student college and career readiness, by incorporating key items that were included in the College Knowing & Going initiative.

In Florida, our policy work has focused on and been effective in the early learning years. Helios identified that many of our partners in Florida struggled to achieve impact because the state had gaps in its early childhood system, which was not well aligned with the K-12 system.

In response, Helios created a multi-year strategy centered on systemic reforms that ultimately helped convince the State Legislature to create a bi-partisan Blue Ribbon committee, funded by Helios as a public/private partnership, to study how to improve childcare program quality and develop a coherent assessment system for early-learning programs. From those recommendations, the legislature then passed additional legislation that established the state’s first tilt in funding towards rewarding higher quality childcare programs.

There is still work to do, especially given that a major bill to reform the state’s Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten program stalled in 2020 due to the impact of COVID-19. Nonetheless, Florida has built coalitions, identified champions, and made progress, and Helios will continue its policy focus on advancing early learning with our partners at the state level.

Lumina Foundation

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

There are three wins, among many others, that we believe have amplified key conversations and policy change at the federal and state levels. The first of these is states setting attainment goals. At this point, nearly 45 states have set goals that are rigorous; are established in a way to guide policy, budgets, and practice; and fundamentally address the need for equity in post-secondary attainment.

A second notable win has been changing the fixed mindset of policymakers when it comes to today’s students. We know that, today, more students are older, more racially diverse, work full-time, have children of their own, and are challenged by a system that is still organized to educate relatively well-off, white, traditional-age students. As we, along with many others, have worked to spread awareness of this reality, we’ve seen it show up in various policy contexts, both directly through efforts that aim to address these students’ needs and concerns, and indirectly by ensuring that policies are no longer written in ways that exclude or ignore them.

Finally, Lumina’s equity imperative drives all our state policy work to operate with a racial equity lens. Three years ago, we created the Talent, Innovation, and Equity (TIE) initiative to see if we could identify and support states that were willing to dramatically increase attainment for students of color. Selected states commit to increase post-secondary attainment for equity populations by a minimum of 5 percent over four years. Colorado, Tennessee, Oregon, Virginia, and Massachusetts are part of the TIE initiative, and we have been impressed with how these states have made significant strides to gain public buy-in on racial equity, and also to identify and remove policies that result in negative outcomes for students of color.

Missouri Foundation for Health

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

Since the Foundation’s inception, MFH has contributed to several different policy initiatives that address topics such as health insurance coverage, Medicaid policy, health equity, and emergency medical care. We have worked to develop a coordinated emergency medical system for stroke and heart attack victims, restore Medicaid adult dental benefits and a state dental director, reduce smoking in Missouri through local policy change, and support efforts to improve access to quality healthcare products for incarcerated women.

In addition to public policy change, we have also focused on contributing to systems change, recognizing that policy improvement does not only happen at a government level. For example, we’ve supported work to advance organizational policies that protect LGBTQ people across healthcare providers and systems. As we move forward in 2020, we are focusing significantly on work to support Medicaid expansion in Missouri and improve our current Medicaid enrollment system.

Walton Family Foundation

Daphne Moore, Director of Communications

Our philanthropic investments in Gulf Coast restoration played a catalytic role in building public support for Louisiana’s approval of its Coastal Master Plan, which “guides the actions needed to sustain coastal ecosystem, safeguard coastal populations, and protect vital economic and cultural resources.” The Foundation helped bring together the Restore the Mississippi Delta Coalition following the Gulf oil spill to highlight the urgency of the land-loss crisis on the Gulf Coast. That coalition included Foundation grantees like the Environmental Defense Fund, National Wildlife Federation, and the National Audubon Society. By educating the public and policymakers, the coalition’s efforts also helped solidify political support for the 2012 passage of the federal RESTORE Act, which allocated 80 percent of the Gulf oil spill fines and penalties to spill-affected states for coastal restoration.

In the Colorado River basin, the Foundation worked with a diverse group of public, private, and nonprofit leaders to build coalitions through educational outreach to help secure passage of Minute 323, a nine-year agreement between the U.S. and Mexico to increase water security. The agreement gives philanthropic organizations a critical role in sharing the cost of restoration in the Colorado River Delta.

Additionally, the Foundation is proud of the role our K-12 Education Program grantees have played in helping secure big education policy victories. With the Foundation’s support for their nonpartisan research and educational outreach, our K-12 grantees’ efforts have, since 2017, allowed for an additional $3.4 billion of funding for our grantees and issues we support.

And finally, in our Home Region Program, the Foundation was an early and important supporter of the Razorback Regional Greenway, a 37-mile system of multi-purpose pedestrian and bicycling trails that now connects six cities in Northwest Arkansas. Our funding helped 32 different municipalities work together to achieve this goal and secure federal matching funds to support the construction of the Greenway.

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.

From the Blog

Foundation Approaches to Endowments and Equity
Foundation Approaches to Endowments and Equity

As a concept, endowments — defined as funds to be kept permanently and invested to provide sustained support — have existed for more than a thousand years. Supporters of endowments note that they can present an opportunity to shift power and promote nonprofit...

read more