When leaders from approximately 48 Pennsylvania-based foundations gathered in State College in April for the Council on Foundations’ Pennsylvania Philanthropy Conference, the negative effects of the state’s infamous nine-month budget impasse on human service delivery were painfully fresh. Nonprofits, especially agencies with state and county contracts, were worn down by months of financial uncertainty. Staff and clients felt underserved by elected officials of both parties in Harrisburg.
Foundation leaders at the conference asked themselves if and how philanthropy could use new or existing public policy channels on behalf of the nonprofits they serve.
Soon after, in a post to the Council on Foundations-managed Pennsylvania Funders Exchange list, Jennifer Wilson, president and CEO of the First Community Foundation Partnership of Pennsylvania, proposed a funders’ survey to explore current policy initiatives and determine whether there was an appetite for greater collaboration. Kevin Murphy, who leads the Berks County Community Foundation, and Maxwell King of The Pittsburgh Foundation quickly agreed, as did Jane Conover of York County Community Foundation, and a grassroots collaboration project was born.
Within a few days, Conover created a short draft survey. Kitty Julian of The Pittsburgh Foundation’s communications office then built out Jane’s draft into a 10-question survey instrument. It polled community, family, and private foundations on interest and degree of support for public policy through such means as grantmaking, policy research, convening, and direct advocacy to legislators.
The goal of the survey: begin to assess the potential for working together.
Members of this informal contingent provided contact names and addresses. Barbara Taylor of Grantmakers of Western Pennsylvania provided member lists and Brad Ward of the Council on Foundations also helped distribute the link. In all, some 60 organizations received the survey and 39 foundations responded over a two-week period in June.
A preliminary report of survey results suggests that, while interest and resources vary by mission and size, there is an appetite for developing a group effort to influence policymaking.
More than half of respondents already fund policy initiatives, convene stakeholders, and meet with elected officials. Asked about current policy priorities, the top three responses were human services, education reform and, not surprisingly, the Pennsylvania state budget.
Could a coalition working on public policy issues lead to better life-improvement outcomes in funders’ communities? 28 foundations answered yes, nine weren’t sure; and only one responded no.
The top three public policy strategies of greatest interest to respondents are public policy research initiatives, establishing priorities and funding them together, and pooling resources for more effective lobbying and advocacy work.
Respondents are also realistic about challenges. The three most significant barriers to collaboration cited were agreeing on priorities, time constraints, and lack of unrestricted dollars to fund public policy initiatives.
On July 5, about a dozen Pennsylvania foundation leaders met in Harrisburg to discuss ways to act on shared policy initiatives. The conversation was led by York’s Jane Conover with assistance from Stephanie Powers of the Council on Foundations. According to Brad Ward of the Council, the collaboration highlights the potential for foundations to work together without self-interest to advance a public policy agenda.
“Projects like this demonstrate how the Council on Foundations and its members can serve as initiators in fostering conversations at the grassroots level and converting early findings into future action plans,” said Ward.
According to Conover, the workgroup seeks to leverage the collective power of philanthropy to promote public policies that advance positive community change.
“We identified four key issues that offer timely opportunities for foundations to become engaged in public policy and will plan webinars for foundations to learn more. Those are human services, health, effective government, and education,” she said.
“As Anna Guarneri, program officer for Planning and Implementation at the William Penn Foundation so clearly articulated at the July 5 meeting, grantmaking can only go so far when there are structural barriers in the way. Foundations have a responsibility to address both,” Conover said.
Collaboration leading to more strategic approaches toward shaping public policy and advocacy agendas is new territory for many Pennsylvania foundations, but it may prove to be the most fertile ground in years for them to seed meaningful change.
To request the complete results of the Pennsylvania Foundation Public Policy Priorities Survey, please email Kitty Julian at firstname.lastname@example.org.