Foundations and Policy Engagement: Insights in Their Own Words, Part 1

Naomi Orensten and Ethan McCoy

Why Foundations are Engaging in Public Policy Efforts

This post is the first in “Foundations and Policy Engagement: Insights in Their Own Words,” a five-part series on the CEP Blog.

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 13 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, 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.

If your foundation would like to share your perspective, we would love to hear from you. Please join in the conversation and share your thoughts in the comment section below, or via email to naomio@cep.org.

Question: Why is engaging in public policy important for your foundation? How much policy work do you do, and how central is it to your work?

Blue Shield of California Foundation

Debbie Chang, President and CEO

The complex problems we must address to meet our bold goals of making California the healthiest state and ending domestic violence require us to engage in public policy as an essential lever for change. Investing in policy change enables and creates the conditions necessary for our grantees’ social innovations to spread and scale their impact across the state — and even the nation. Policy change works both at the level of a specific innovation, to help spread a practice that improves health and reduces domestic violence, and at the broader societal level, to address the root causes of poor health and violence that must change for our goals to become reality.

Much of our work is geared toward creating and testing innovative solutions to problems that impact health. For example, since 2016 the state of California has supported a housing-first approach to prevent homelessness among domestic violence survivors. The Domestic Violence Housing First program provides survivors with flexible funds to help cover costs directly related to their housing stability and safety, such as rental assistance, transportation, and childcare costs, since it is often the small challenges and expenses that lead to housing instability and a greater risk of staying in an abusive relationship.

We have funded an in-depth evaluation of this model, which has demonstrated that the approach prevents homelessness among a majority of program participants. Recently, we presented the evaluation findings in a policy briefing to local and state government policymakers as a step towards our goal of helping survivors statewide. And with this hard data and evidence, grantee partners like the California Partnership to End Domestic Violence now have proof points and a clear pathway to make the case for this proven solution to help survivors all across the state find safe housing.

Making California the healthiest state also means tackling some of the underlying causes of poor health and domestic violence. Economic insecurity is one such root cause: the stress of poverty leads to poor health in adulthood and perpetuates the cycle of domestic violence in families. There is ample evidence that putting time and money into the hands of low-income families ameliorates this stress. Our support for grantee partners such as the California Immigrant Policy Center helps their efforts to change state policy to expand eligibility for Earned Income Tax Credit and paid family leave programs that will improve health outcomes for families and children.

Creating policy change is never easy, but we know it is a fundamental tool for creating sustainable, lasting solutions to improve the health of all Californians.

Community Foundation Boulder County

Chris Barge, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives

Public policy is an important part of creating systemic change, and as such is a best practice of community foundations. Community Foundation Boulder County (CFBC) has a long history of supporting education measures in public policy, as well as measures in direct support of local nonprofits. We recently adopted a new vision for our Foundation — of supporting an equitable Boulder County — which calls for the creation of systems where all can thrive. In other words, equity is systems change. Public policy is central to this work since it can advance impact over time not otherwise possible.

Our current stance on policy holds that any board or staff member can bring forward a policy issue that impacts CFBC and its clients. In practice, CFBC has refrained from taking institutional policy positions in issue areas outside of education and support for nonprofits. However, we have the legal ability and the authority, as per our own policy, to advocate far more broadly.

Our TRENDS indicators report on the social, economic, and environmental health of our community and give us a unique and comprehensive basis for our policy positions. And the strategic plan we adopted in 2019 points us toward a north star of equity, with several guiding principles: stand with those most impacted by inequity; do nothing about us without us; and accomplish more together than alone.

We are in the process of re-imagining a broader role for public policy at our foundation that is in line with our vision and approach. We see resident leadership and community engagement as central to our efforts to increase our impact through public policy advocacy, and we will continue to prioritize these points of emphasis.

Helios Education Foundation

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

In order to realize our vision that every individual in Arizona and Florida has the opportunity to attend and is prepared to succeed in postsecondary education, Helios Education Foundation understands its role in public policy must be deeply rooted in advocacy — advocacy fueled by the needs and aspirations of first-generation, low-income, and underrepresented students.

Helios’ portfolio of policy work is extensive. Oftentimes, our community investment and policy engagement work together to provide thought leadership, public/private partnership investment, and investment proof of concept. Our capacity to engage in policy and align it with our community investments has evolved and matured considerably over the past decade and a half. We’ve added staff with deep experience and learned from various successes and setbacks along the way. We’ve found that Helios’ vision cannot be achieved without scale, and scale cannot be achieved without meaningful engagement in public policy — ultimately leading to systemic educational reform in both states.

Philanthropy has both an opportunity and a responsibility to use its voice to contribute to policy reforms that create systemic change for our communities. At Helios, we are committed to our policy work and will continue to employ our policy strategies to realize the change that needs to happen to ensure college and career success for all students.

Jacob & Valeria Langeloth Foundation

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

The Langeloth Foundation’s two main focus areas are Justice Reform (with an emphasis on ending the use of solitary confinement in the correctional system) and Safe and Healthy Communities (with a focus on gun violence prevention in Black and brown communities). While undoubtedly important for saving lives, if the Foundation only focused on programs, rather than policy, we would be providing funding for short-term relief without addressing the structural conditions that perpetuate the problem.

To quote Archbishop Desmond Tutu, “There comes a point when we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.” For both of our funding areas, the policies that create the endemics need to be addressed.

Lumina Foundation

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

Lumina Foundation is committed to the creation of a just and fair universal post-secondary learning system that offers every American the opportunity for a better life, and we believe that policy change can most effectively achieve systemic transformation at scale. So, policy work — both at the state and federal levels — is important to our theory of change, and we support a great deal of this type of work.

Missouri Foundation for Health

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

Missouri Foundation for Health (MFH) began work in public policy in 2003 and has been engaged in a wide range of related efforts ever since. Policy work is one of several changemaking tools we employ to promote systems-level change. This work primarily focuses on policy driven by state and local government, but also includes improvements to organization-level policy. For example, we have done significant work in healthcare systems to improve policies as they relate to care for LGBTQ individuals. MFH values policy work because of its ability to have far-reaching impact on the health and well-being of communities.

REACH Healthcare Foundation

Brenda Sharpe, President and CEO

Policy work is central to the REACH Healthcare Foundation’s vision and mission, but that was not always the case. Like many foundation boards, ours was initially reluctant to engage in advocacy for specific health policies, largely due to legal concerns and misunderstandings about 501(c)3 lobbying and advocacy allowances and limitations.

However, after investing in board development and engaging experts like those at the Bolder Advocacy Initiative of the Alliance for Justice, we came to better understand the opportunity to more substantially and sustainably advance our mission and the work of our grantees. We now file the annual “H Election” with the IRS, which gives our Board peace of mind that we are participating in direct lobbying only to the extent possible and in ways that will not jeopardize our charitable tax status.

Not engaging in this important work can, in fact, undermine philanthropy’s efforts and diminish the return on our community investments. At REACH, we recognize that philanthropy simply cannot make up the difference — even when pooling all our collective resources — to offset significant cuts to public funding streams like healthcare, education, and services for children and families.

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Robin Mockenhaupt, Senior Vice President, Strategic Initiatives, and Avenel Joseph, Vice President, Policy

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) strives to build a Culture of Health and to advance health equity so that everyone in America has a fair and just opportunity for health and well-being. Obstacles to health such as poverty and discrimination have dire consequences, including powerlessness and lack of access to good jobs with fair pay, quality education, housing, safe environments, and healthcare. To achieve our vision, we focus on removing these obstacles by improving systems and conditions, shifting mindsets, and supporting policies and practices that promote health and well-being.

The COVID-19 pandemic and issues of police brutality and systemic racism have revealed many structural failures in our public policies. Now more than ever, there is an opportunity for transformational change that will make this nation stronger and more prepared to minimize the negative impacts on families and communities. Real opportunities exist for state and national policymakers to fill policy gaps and create lasting, equitable change that will prevent discrimination, support family economic security, and strengthen our healthcare systems.

At RWJF, we believe policy change can have a long lasting and self-sustaining positive impact on the conditions and systems that promote health and well-being.

Policy changes that center equity must occur at the federal, state, and local levels of government. Some policies that have created or exasperated inequities — like Medicaid access, which varies widely from state to state — have federal and state components, and therefore multiple levers for changes, that can promote health equity.

Policy work requires ongoing and continuous support to achieve new gains and to defend those previously achieved. Changing bad policy takes time and protecting good policy requires ongoing monitoring and advocacy.

Foundations can play important roles in policy development, analysis, and implementation by: 1) gathering and producing evidence that supports health promoting policies; 2) using our voices — and amplifying others’ voices — to educate policymakers and other audiences about the evidence supporting and the importance of these policies; 3) cultivating leaders to support advocacy efforts; and 4) using administrative and judicial strategies to affect the changes they want to see.

With all sectors working together, we can work towards creating a fair and just opportunity for health and well-being in America.

Walton Family Foundation

Daphne Moore, Director of Communications

The Walton Family Foundation does not engage directly in policy work; however, we fund grantees to do research, analysis, and education on the public policy issues and challenges we care deeply about solving.

We couple this work with the other levers at our disposal, recognizing that philanthropy plays a critical role when it comes to creating big social change. Foundations can think about issues at a national or global level, and they can use their resources to test new ideas and see what works and what doesn’t. Foundations have the freedom to innovate and take risks in ways that elected officials or the private sector might not be as comfortable doing.

We share the knowledge we gain through our grantees’ work. What we learn and where we succeed — or fail — can ultimately inform decisions that policymakers take. We also recognize that sound policymaking occurs at a more local level and works best when it’s developed by those in the communities we serve, so our engagement with these communities is integral to our work.

W.K. Kellogg Foundation

Robb Gray, Director of Policy-Advocacy

Children are at the heart of everything we do at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Our goal is lasting, transformational change for children. Children are more likely to thrive when they have a healthy start and quality learning experiences, their families are economically secure, and they live in vibrant, equitable communities. As a foundation, we use a variety of tools to support and improve children’s lives — grantmaking, impact investing, convening, and public policy engagement.

Because public policy impacts every aspect of a child’s life, policy engagement is central to our work. When rooted in equity and evidence-based research and practices, public policy can be a vehicle to construct lasting opportunities, ensure a stable economic future, and lead to full civic participation of communities where children and families can develop, grow, and contribute.

The primary way our foundation supports policy engagement is at the community level. We find that when communities have a hand in creating, negotiating, and implementing solutions, the policies are more relevant, more likely to be embraced, and ultimately more sustainable. In addition to promoting community voices, we also leverage strategic partnerships and engage directly to help families and civic leaders play an active role in making children’s development and well-being central to their decision-making.

To support communities in the advancement of public policy, we invest our grantmaking resources in advocacy leadership development, policy analysis and research, civic participation and access, as well as policy innovation at the local, state, and national levels. We work throughout the U.S. and with sovereign tribes, concentrating up to two-thirds of our grantmaking in priority places of Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, New Orleans, indigenous communities in Mexico, and rural Haiti.

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

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