Foundations and Policy Engagement: Insights in Their Own Words, Part 2

Naomi Orensten and Ethan McCoy

Building Board Support for Foundation Public Policy Efforts

This post is the second in “Foundations and Policy Engagement: Insights in Their Own Words,” a five-part series on the CEP Blog. (Read Post 1 here, Post 3 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.

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: How have you built board support for your foundation’s policy efforts? What advice do you have for funders who wish to develop more support for policy engagement from their board?

Community Foundation Boulder County

Chris Barge, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives

We have recently invited local thought leaders on the Census and on affordable housing to speak to our Board. This has led to board votes in favor of supporting a complete and accurate 2020 Census count, as well as votes in favor of collaborating with other affordable housing advocates on policy efforts.

With regard to the Census, we opened a fund seeded by inspired trustees. We raised $120,000, and also leveraged $130,000 in additional grant dollars, to land in our nonprofit ecosystem. This has allowed us to fund a cross-county coalition of agencies that have hired cultural brokers to help ensure a complete and accurate count among our most hard-to-count communities. Early results are promising.

With regard to housing, we have begun working with other agencies to promote awareness of the importance of affordable housing in our community. COVID-19 has eliminated a previously conceived idea for a local tax initiative on the November ballot, but we are making the most of the opportunity to highlight the importance of home during these stay-at-home orders.

We have also assembled a small group of staff and trustees for occasional meetings of an ad hoc policy committee, to help guide these expanding policy efforts.

Our Board sees a direct connection between our strategic plan and the way in which we are approaching our work involving the 2020 Census and affordable housing. I would recommend other foundations also seek alignment between a specific vision for their community(ies) and the power of policy advocacy in achieving this vision. ​Start with the most important issues identified by the people. Otherwise, getting involved with public policy writ large is a prescription for paralysis by analysis.

Lumina Foundation

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

The best thing a foundation can do to develop board support for policy engagement is to put their program staff doing policy work in front of the board. Let the board ask questions and understand the work, allow them to voice their concerns about risks, and let the program staff respond to and calibrate the work against that guidance.

This direct engagement is the best way for the board to understand what this work is — and, most crucially, what this work is not. While reputation and relationships with policymakers are vital, accomplishing policy success is not based on partisan or relationship-driven lobbying. Allowing program staff to directly show the board the types of activities you are planning to support — and how those activities have been successful in the past — is an effective way to quell concerns about lobbying and reputational risk.

Additionally, boards should have a sense of ownership in the vision of the policy work. They should endorse and understand the changes the foundation wishes to enable in the system. The means may be varied, but a north-star goal or set of goals, adopted by the board, permits a foundation to show progress over time. In our case, Lumina’s Board is absolutely committed to Goal 2025. Encouraging 50 states (more than 40 are currently on board) to adopt a similar attainment goal (along with the requisite evidence-based policies to attain it) was a logical extension of Lumina’s internal and national thought leadership. Seeing this brought to action in states aligned in our vision, which our Board understood and embraced.

Missouri Foundation for Health

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

Our Board understands the significance of investing in policy-change work because it is an efficient and effective way to ensure that everyone in Missouri has a fair and just opportunity to lead a healthy life. While direct programmatic services are still a crucial component of our work, influencing policy enables us to remove barriers and improve quality outcomes across a wide range of systems that impact health. Although policy change may be intimidating or difficult to evaluate, it offers a sustainable intervention that can serve broader constituencies.

We would advise others in philanthropy to challenge their thinking on how they can best support their mission and aspirational goals. Philanthropic organizations are often the most well positioned stakeholders to advance policy and systemic change, as they have the resources, sway, and insulation to take on bold initiatives.

Walton Family Foundation

Daphne Moore, Director of Communications

The Walton Family Foundation works with our Board to set five-year grantmaking strategies. Our strategy-development process requires deep engagement over the course of a year or longer.  Through this process, we contemplate the impact that public policy has on the issues we work to tackle in our philanthropy.

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

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