Foundations and Policy Engagement: Insights in Their Own Words, Part 4

Naomi Orensten and Ethan McCoy

How Foundations Are Using Their Voice to Influence Public Policy

This post is the fourth 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 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 — and when and why — does your foundation use its own voice, separate from grantmaking, to influence public policy?

Blue Shield of California Foundation

By Debbie Chang, President and CEO

As a corporate foundation, we speak up when we feel our voice would help to bring more weight to issues aligned with our bold goal of making California the healthiest state with the lowest rate of domestic violence, and when our values — equity, possibility, partnership, and integrity — compel us to act.

No matter how we decide to weigh in, our policy and program work go hand in hand. Our policy approach is strongest when we build on what we have learned from our program investments, and from our grantees and the communities they serve. Our voice allows us to bring our full knowledge of health and well-being, gleaned from strong partnerships and from listening to grantees, to statewide and national policy conversations.

California is America’s most diverse state and has been built by its immigrant communities. We know we cannot become the healthiest state unless all our communities are resilient and have the support they need for health and safety. So, in recent years, we have used our voice to oppose policy changes that threaten to undermine the well-being of those communities. For example, we submitted comments opposing changes to the federal public charge rule, which establishes a higher bar for legal permanent residence by denying admissibility to immigrants based on age, income, and the receipt of certain public benefits. This rule will deepen inequity in our state by discouraging immigrant families from accessing healthcare and nutrition programs for which they or their children are eligible, and so we feel compelled to use our platform to oppose it.

We also used our voice to oppose changes that threaten the ability of immigrant Californians to influence their futures. We publicly opposed the addition of a citizenship question to the 2020 Census, which would have discouraged many immigrant families from being counted. To fight this, we supported research in the San Joaquin Valley to understand directly from immigrant communities how a citizenship question would affect their willingness to be counted. We also signed on to an amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court summarizing this evidence in a lawsuit that ultimately successfully prevented the question’s inclusion in the Census.

When we speak on these issues, we often find that we are unique among corporate foundations in taking a stand. But when evidence from our research, our grantees, and our community partners tells us that a policy will harm our communities — and when our values tell us the same — we will speak up to help make California the healthiest state.

Community Foundation Boulder County

Chris Barge, Vice President of Strategic Initiatives

It is generally not our style to stand at a lectern and speak to a specific policy issue. We prefer to stand with our neighbors who know a particular struggle the best, and find ways to lift up their voices.

The primary way we do this is through our TRENDS reporting initiative, which shares more than 150 indicators of our community’s social, economic, and environmental health to inform and engage local residents and civic leaders. In addition to a biennial magazine on these issues, we now have a TRENDS podcast in partnership with local KGNU Community Radio, as well as a TRENDS Diary that provides first-person accounts of connecting and solving problems during social isolation. Upcoming projects include a “COVID TRENDS Special Report” that will document the local impact of the pandemic, a reporting fellowship for local reporters interested in deepening their coverage of pressing community needs, reporting stipends, and a new solutions fund designed to catalyze community response to issues raised by this reporting.

In a similar vein, we are planning focus groups with local residents most impacted by COVID-19 to discover a collective vision for how the “new normal” should look. We plan to ask a simple question: what is essential to ensure that everyone here may thrive? We want to create systems that answer this question, and we want to understand and ensure that which is essential to those most impacted by inequity. Our findings from these focus groups will inform a series of design workshops, where we will bring together residents who have experienced the sharpest pains of COVID-19 with donors, innovators, and other leaders to co-design policy solutions for our community.

The Healing Trust

Meredith Sullivan Benton, Vice-President, Programs and Advocacy

We survey our grantee partners annually to create our advocacy agenda, and our Board then approves three to five focus areas. Our current advocacy agenda focuses on the 2020 Census, healthcare access, trauma-informed schools, health equity, and voter participation during COVID-19.

Once we have listened to our grantees and identified focus areas, we use our voice to advance this agenda by sending letters, making calls, hosting meetings, submitting public comments, and promoting opportunities for grantee partner engagement. We also use our active social media platforms to raise awareness and issue calls to action. Our grantee partners appreciate our voice because we can take risks that they cannot due to the potential loss of funding or relationships.

Jacob & Valeria Langeloth Foundation

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

For the first time, we are putting the Langeloth Foundation itself front and center and using our voice in a policy push, which is not our typical way of working. With the onset of COVID-19 and the disproportionate impact the pandemic is having on communities of color, the Foundation has made a significant grant to two funder collaboratives that focus on civic engagement. We believe that in order for the populations that the Foundation cares about to engage in the democratic process, safe voting needs to be available to everyone. We believe using our voice is going to be key in this work. To that end, we are placing the Foundation more centrally in this effort by hiring a communications firm that will support us in amplifying our efforts and issuing a broader call to other foundations to step into this space with us.

Lumina Foundation

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

We use our own voice to comment on policy areas where we have internal expertise, have a new or different perspective to add to the discussion, and of course when we are not restricted by our lobbying prohibitions.

MacArthur Foundation

Laurie Garduque, Director, Criminal Justice

For too long, our country has failed to grapple with the deep harm it has caused to communities of color, low-income people, and those suffering from mental illness and substance use. While Black and Latinx people together make up 30 percent of the general population, they account for 51 percent of the jail population. Serious mental illness affects one in six men and one in three women in jail. And because people with low incomes cannot afford bail or other fines and fees, they often spend more time incarcerated awaiting trial than the longest possible sentence for their alleged offense.

Through the Safety and Justice Challenge, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is using its voice to support cities and counties as they address these issues head on by: 1) identifying where these disparities exist; and 2) putting in place changes to policies and practices. While redesigning criminal justice systems is good, meaningful change can only occur through reinvention. To do this, we must build justice systems that are more fair, just, and equitable.

Our goal is to communicate successes, challenges, and learnings from the Safety and Justice Challenge to persuade other parts of the country to pursue their own policy reforms that confront the misuse and overuse of jails. We do this by promoting emerging research and data, case studies, and trends in the field through media outreach, op-eds, letters to the editor, and multiple social media platforms. With these activities, we aim to reach and engage both individuals who work within justice systems and members of the public. We are confident these communications efforts will also make already-implemented reforms more sustainable.

Using the Foundation’s voice to advance these goals is more important than ever. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven that it is possible to quickly and safely reduce jail populations. And, it has highlighted the danger of not addressing over-incarceration, as thousands of people in cramped jails have been exposed to the deadly virus — starkly reminding us, again, how the system disproportionately impacts low-income people and people of color.

Local justice systems can change. Sharing this message and spreading it even further can help make that happen.

Missouri Foundation for Health

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

In 2019, MFH established a public affairs agenda that allows us to leverage our organizational position and take a public leadership role on issues that are critical to the health and well-being of Missouri’s individuals and communities. The agenda provides focus for our organizational voice, allowing us to create a public narrative about who we are, what we care about, and what we want to be known for. As our public affairs work continues to evolve, we aim to be responsive and flexible, but also more deliberate in how we use these opportunities to influence public policy, elevate appropriate messages, build and maintain a strong reputation, and find common ground with stakeholders.

Over the past several months, we have been using our voice in various ways to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. We have collaborated with public health and healthcare organizations to issue a letter to Missouri’s governor regarding the state’s stay-at-home order, submitted recommendations to state agencies on several policy extensions that would better serve our communities, and elevated concerns of local public health agencies to administration officials. We believe these advocacy activities — made possible by years of work to build relationships and capital with policymakers — complement our COVID-19 investment strategy by amplifying concerns of communities in need who often don’t have access to decision makers.

REACH Healthcare Foundation

Brenda Sharpe, President and CEO

This question is a tricky one. If we are not careful, and do not carefully engage community partners and external experts when developing our policy agenda, we can inadvertently undermine — or even compete with — policy priorities of the very organizations and populations we are trying to help. Their priorities must inform ours. That’s why REACH engages our grantees, consumer groups, national and statewide advocacy organizations, and our local legislative delegates as we craft our annual policy agenda.

On occasion, we have stood alone and used our own voice, usually in situations where our nonprofit partners risk politically-motivated backlash — or even funding cuts — if they were to speak out. In these cases, we determine how much of our own “political capital” we are willing to expend, and then only advocate on behalf of issues and policies clearly aligned with our mission and vision.

Foundations quick to take a position on every issue will quickly find they are ignored by policymakers. Given this, on some occasions, especially when policies violate or are in direct contention with our guiding principles, we will speak out quickly and unequivocally. Examples include our opposition to the detainment of immigrant children, city ordinances that allow continued discriminatory practices against members of the LGBTQ community, or bills advancing punitive requirements based on stereotypes of the poor, such as Medicaid work requirements.

Generally, REACH favors working — and adding our voice to a collective effort — through coalitions, campaigns, and advocacy partnerships to advance common goals and agendas, such as the Alliance for a Healthy Kansas and YesOn2 Healthcare for Missouri. As we see it, we are better together!

Walton Family Foundation

Daphne Moore, Director of Communications

Big social change requires public support, otherwise it won’t be real or lasting.  By being thought leaders on the big issues we work to tackle, we can help build a solid foundation of support for the change we seek. To that end, when appropriate, we use our voice to make a case for the solutions we believe will help increase access to opportunity for people and communities.

One example is a Huffington Post op-ed that Marc Sternberg, who directs the Foundation’s K-12 Education Program, authored urging protection for Dreamers through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Protecting and supporting Dreamers is an issue we care about, and we felt our voice could help the students, parents, and families we aim to support.

We also use our voice to bring attention to emerging issues that might not be on the radar screens of the public and policymakers, but we feel need to be. For example, in our Home Region of Northwest Arkansas, lack of equitable access to affordable housing is a growing concern. To help raise awareness of that issue, our board member, Alice Walton, wrote an op-ed in the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette urging the region’s leaders to develop policy solutions that close the housing gap, which are both creative in design and affordable.

In our Environment Program’s work, we are using our voice to press for creative conservation solutions. For example, the program has elevated the importance of public policy in incentivizing farmers in the Mississippi River basin to adopt better conservation practices. In a recent op-ed, interim Environment Program Director Moira Mcdonald argued that policymakers should invest in training and financial assistance to improve farmers’ access to technology and make it easier and more feasible for them to adapt their operations.

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

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