A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Foundations Regroup to Meet Shifting Public Policy

Responding to dramatic changes in public policy in 2017, many foundation leaders have tailored their strategies and tactics in continued pursuit of their missions. Armed with clear focus, experience, and strong networks, these foundations are modeling good philanthropic practice that is worth noticing.

Recently, dozens of funders gathered at Associated Grant Makers (AGM) to discuss the ways they have sought opportunity for continued impact in this changed environment. A panel of three seasoned foundation leaders shared their experiences at the spirited event organized by AGM, Exponent Philanthropy, and GMA Foundations.

Some environmental funders, previously working to support change required by government regulation, now face the withdrawal of enforcement. Sponsors of programs to integrate and support immigrants and refugees suddenly know that those target populations face fear and deportation. Certain place-based funders, more aware than ever of a fractured country, attend to divisions that have long simmered quietly in their communities.

In dialogue with their audience, moderator Debra Moniz (Director of Administration and Finance, Cedar Tree Foundation) and panelists Myron Miller (Trustee, Herman and Frieda L. Miller Foundation), Melissa Spatz (Program Director, Piper Fund), and Denise Porché (Executive Director, Island Foundation) identified some approaches they have used in the last year.

The funder conversation emphasized several good practices:

Embrace your hopes and mission

Indeed, a foundation’s mission is its touchstone. In response to changing circumstances, these funders chose tactics like broadening or narrowing the scope of activities, rapid action in the face of mission-related emergency needs, and sharpening priorities to do less of some things and more of others.

Remain flexible

Faced with changed external realities, some of our panelists reacted with simplified application processes to expedite grants, or added rigor in decision-making. They agreed that this type of flexibility has helped them in trying to be mission-bound without being guidelines-bound.

Rely on and strengthen your grantee relationships

Today’s public policy shifts reinforce the importance of knowing your grantees, and taking cues from grantees, as they directly experience the trends. The knowledge gained by listening to and trusting these nonprofit leaders will help inform tradeoffs, identify new priorities, or tap into powerful grassroots coordination.

Following in-depth reflection with grantees, the Miller Foundation made exceptions to its previous guidelines and chose to fund one timely national effort and to contribute to an emergency direct services collaborative fund. The Piper Fund broadened its work to protect the right to protest and to promote the independence of the judicial branch as a whole. The Island Foundation began to fund anti-racism work and work that helped to build community and foster relationships between police and youth. All realized the need to fund grantee collaboration and communications activities.

Learn, collaborate, coordinate, and cooperate

Our discussion reinforced the call for communication and collaboration among funders, and in our work with grantees. We cannot afford to be siloed.

Panelists made clear that there are multiple routes to influencing public policy, and that foundation action is only one of those. Foundations must comply with the law and maintain a complete financial and administrative firewall around their charitable activities. At the same time, foundation leaders, acting personally, often engage with advocacy or direct political causes. Although such actions are fully separate, the panelists agreed that they may be mutually reinforced by donors’ knowledge of issues and a consistent vision.

Although the focus of the discussion was on current changes in national policy, similar thinking could and should be brought to bear on any major external shift, such as natural disaster, recession, or civil unrest. Cleaving to mission, finding grantmaking flexibility, and continuing to listen to grantees remain the hallmarks of good philanthropic practice.

Myron Miller is trustee of the Herman and Frieda L. Miller Foundation. Amy Segal Shorey, a senior consultant at GMA Foundations, serves as grantmaking staff to the Miller Foundation.

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