Should Foundations Engage in Public Policy?

Should Foundations Engage in Public Policy?

While many foundations are asking this question, it may be the wrong question. Instead, they should be asking, "What policy work are we already engaged in and is there a more effective way for us to approach public policy?"

Obviously, level of involvement is a matter of choice and perspective. Foundations vary in their willingness to embrace policy initiatives and in their ability to see beyond grantmaking initiatives such as capacity building as their only avenue for influencing policy. But the benefits of including public policy in the philanthropic toolkit are clear and many foundations are leveraging funds in this area to attain more significant outcomes.

For example, a recent report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy depicted a significant return on investment from grant-funded advocacy and policy initiatives conducted by fifteen Los Angeles County community organizations. Among other things, the report found that "For every dollar foundations and other donors provided to community organizations engaged in advocacy and organizing, the funded groups realized $91 in benefits to the communities they serve."

The Hogg Foundation for Mental Health in Austin, Texas, also recognizes that engaging with policy matters can help it achieve its mission to improve the mental health of Texans. A recent external survey conducted by the foundation supported this view by revealing that many stakeholders see the influencing of public policy as an important role for the foundation to play. As a result, the foundation recently hired me to lead its policy unit and build its presence and influence in discussions on mental health policy.

Over the years, the foundation has not focused on significant legislative and administrative policy initiatives. As a matter of course, however, the foundation had engaged in activities that ultimately affect policy: meeting with others to discuss issues, participating in workgroups and committees as subject-matter experts, producing educational materials, and bringing relevant parties together. What's different now is that the Hogg Foundation is developing a clear picture of how these existing efforts can be incorporated into an expanded public policy strategy or plan.

Philanthropy and policy should go hand in hand. Awarding grants to address specific problems has limited impact if the lessons learned are limited to grant recipients and not disseminated for the greater good. Foundations are often in a prime position to influence policy simply because of the credibility they have in the community. The goal should be to use that credibility to leverage grantmaking in ways that promote positive systems change.

In a recent issue of The Foundation Review, Johanna Morariu and Kathleen Brennan, co-authors of "Effective Advocacy Evaluation: The Role of Funders," argue that foundation involvement in policy and advocacy is one way to address some of the problems created by the global economic downturn and add that by "addressing change at the systems level rather than by treating symptoms of social ills, advocacy work has the potential to affect many more lives than direct service work alone."

There are many ways to do this. Thoughtful strategic policy planning is the first step. Whether foundations realize it or not, they often engage in policy by funding collaborations and supporting grassroots development, training and education, leadership-building initiatives, data collection, and experiential learning. The options are many, but the extent of a foundation's engagement with systems change likely will be determined by the comfort level of the organization's leadership and board.

More directly, foundations can and should engage in a variety of direct public policy activities. These may include conducting policy analysis, providing technical assistance, developing policy briefs and positions, and pursuing ongoing interaction with policy decision makers as long as the foundation is not directly involved with influencing the course of a specific piece of legislation or the outcome of a political campaign.

These are all important components of advocacy and policy change efforts. Bringing divergent groups together to talk about issues is especially effective. Conversation often breeds collaboration and from collaboration grows influence. While progress may at times be slow and difficult to measure, foundations should think in terms of success over longer periods of time.

To repeat: most foundations are already engaged in public policy activities, even if those activities are not the product of a conscious decision-making process. To maximize their impact and influence, however, foundations need to be more intentional and strategic in identifying their policy goals and objectives, funding capacity-building projects that promote systems change, and evaluating the effectiveness of their policy strategies. In so doing, and by sharing the lessons they learn in the process, foundations will move systems change efforts forward in ways that their funding alone cannot.

Colleen Horton is a program officer at the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health.