The system needs to change.
Like many family foundations, we receive several worthy requests that we turn down due to lack of funds. Most of our grants are program/project-based—reactive to the problems at hand rather than tackling them before they become an issue. In the light of this, the Wright Family Foundation is trying different ways to combat social issues from a more proactive angle.
In 2011, I was stunned to learn that the Texas Legislature was planning to cut $10 billion from the state’s public schools. And I was even more shocked to learn that many state legislators thought foundations across Texas would pick up the balance. To disabuse politicians of that notion, I attended a meeting at the state capitol with several other funders to educate them on how philanthropy works and to let them know many of us were still struggling from the effects of the economic downturn. Despite our best efforts, more than $5 billion was still cut from the public education budget.
Emboldened by our newly acquired knowledge of the policy process, and concerned about the impact of the cuts, foundations joined together in a non-partisan group called TEGAC – Texas Education Grantmakers Advocacy Consortium. Through membership dues paid to TEGAC and foundation grants, we commissioned objective research on how schools implemented the cuts and took that data to the Capitol. Many schools had cut counselors and a wide range of support programs for low-income students—programs and services found by researchers to have some of the largest impact on educational outcomes.
The legislators listened and read the clear data we presented. In an ironic twist, they listened more to the voice of the foundations than they did to educators and school leaders. Why? Because in politicians’ eyes, foundations represent power and money. And they knew we meant business.
We quickly realized the power of the collective voice of philanthropy. Foundation benefactors, trustees, and staff have a tremendous opportunity to educate legislators about the needs of our communities and the limits of private resources. The simple reality is that foundations have political access that the organizations we support and the clients they serve do not. Legislators will answer our calls and attend our meetings. When Texas foundations invited legislators to come to them for legislative meetings, the state’s leaders came, and they came early.
The Wright Family Foundation is in the process of creating a philanthropic roundtable of foundations and is commissioning non-partisan research in advance of the 2017 legislative session, to bring to light the devastation teen pregnancy is wreaking not only on Texas teens and their families, but also on our state’s taxpayer-funded budget.
Modern philanthropy has a choice: It can either wait to respond to changing public policies, or it can help shape policy.
Our family foundation has learned that the biggest return we will ever get on any grant will come from a grant to change policy. We have also learned that the biggest impact we can have on policymakers comes not from a check we cut, but by mobilizing our voices.
As the executive director of my family’s foundation, and as a citizen, parent, and someone who invests in her community, I call upon other foundation trustees, staff, and donors across the country to meet with your local, state, and national legislators about urgent issues you care about. Join with other funders in your community to take your rightful place at the policy table. Your voice carries great weight; don’t be afraid to use it.
Katherine Wright is the Austin, TX executive director of her family’s foundation, the Wright Family Foundation, which is committed to diverse educational initiatives that provide intervention, support, and enrichment programs for at-risk children to realize their full potential.