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Influencing Policy at All Levels of Government

Resource type: News

Insight Magazine | [ View Original Source (opens in new window) ]

By Gara LaMarche

Not too many years ago, it was a hard sell to convince most foundations that involvement in public policy, and particularly the support of advocacy, was an essential element of carrying out their philanthropic mission, whatever that happened to be. Many had concerns about whether it was appropriate, or even legal, for foundations to be involved in such activities at all. 

The philanthropic conversation about this, and the action that has followed it, have advanced steadily, and few still argue that advocacy and foundations don’t mix. Old canards have been overcome, as nonprofit groups like the Alliance for Justice have worked hard to show funders the wide latitude they have for support of advocacy efforts. Funders who favor a stronger role for government in ensuring a stronger social safety net, such as Packard and Robert Wood Johnson, have shown how concerted federal- and state-based advocacy and public education campaigns can have dramatic impact on the lives and health of poor children. Through their Covering Kids & Families initiative, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has helped make both the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) and Medicaid more accessible for families. The Packard Foundation has supported multistate projects that provide financial and technical support to state-based advocacy organizations focusing on states that are positioned to make significant advances in children’s coverage. Funders who believe there should be much more latitude for private initiative in education, such as the conservative Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation in Wisconsin, have supported grantees who have successfully pushed changes in state laws and policy to permit more parental choice in schools, including some voucher programs.

As these examples demonstrate, public policy advocacy is not a liberal or conservative undertaking, but a route that smart, strategic funders increasingly take to advance their mission and objectives. Emily Tow Jackson discusses the importance of foundation support for advocacy in her article in this issue of Insight, Influencing Policy at All Levels of Government.

The wider acceptance and practice of policy influence as a key tool in the kit for most foundations has naturally led to a second generation of questions and concerns about it. How, foundations want to know, can we be even smarter in this approach? How closely involved should our staff and trustees be? Beyond particular grants, is it a plus or a minus for a funder to speak out in his or her institutional voice? What is the best way to set benchmarks for advocacy funding, and measure success along the way?

Of late, as a progressive national administration has reached out to foundations to increase public–private partnerships in which foundations work closely with government agencies to raise student achievement, combat child obesity, or increase national service, a new set of questions has emerged. Are foundations and government too close for comfort? Is philanthropic independence in danger? In his piece, Ralph Smith argues that it’s not, and that partnership across the public, private, and social sectors is in fact critical to solving the most pressing problems. 

That these questions are being asked at all is a sign of the shift in philanthropic attitudes noted at the outset of this short essay, not to mention a sign of the political times. Some of the criticism is suspect, coming as it does from sources who have long opposed any activist role for foundations and their grantees. No funder should be deterred from effective public policy work by ideologically motivated attacks. But the underlying questions are valid, and deserve continuing reflection. Funders can be at times a partner to government, but should never be its agent. Along with our grantees, as key institutions of civil society, our highest and best role remains the one for which our independence suits us. We can take risks on new approaches that government, are more sensitive to political winds, and can learn and adapt. Moreover, we can support groups that hold policymakers accountable to their promises and ensure they are responsive to the most vulnerable and voiceless in our society. 

At this moment in American democracy, there is no more important role. 

Grantmakers for Children, Youth & Families is an Atlantic grantee.

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