A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Advocating For State-Level Systems Changes: Policy Work By a Small Foundation

Photo by Jerry Wang on Unsplash

Leanly staffed family foundations can punch well above their weight, working with other funders and grantees to change systems. Over the past seven years, the Thornburg Foundation has experienced this firsthand.

Given the depth of the challenges facing the state of New Mexico, systemic change is particularly important to our board chair and founder, Garrett Thornburg. He said,

“Rather than scattering money on the ground, we want to focus on improving policy.”

We continue to make annual operating grants to a multitude of place-based nonprofits, and we have expanded our grantmaking, intentionally addressing the root causes of problems and successfully shaping statewide policy solutions. With assets that have grown to $150 million, the Thornburg Foundation’s policy reform focuses on early childhood education, agriculture and food concerns, and good government reform.

A successful investor, Thornburg built his business by relying on research and facts, a philosophy he extends to philanthropy. A self-described “ardent independent,” he prefers to take on policy issues with a nonpartisan approach—relying on data-driven analysis to bring disparate factions together. In each focus area, a program officer with subject matter expertise works with grantees to:

  • Gather facts
  • Bring together diverse parties
  • Find consensus to move issues forward
  • Evaluate effectiveness
  • Advocate for policy change
  • Support sustainable implementation

Across all of this work, the foundation’s mindset has been relentlessly focused on changing the system. With each grant we consider, we ask this fundamental question:

“How likely is this to lead to meaningful change in how things work at a structural level?”

Before and throughout the life span of each initiative, we conduct thorough landscape scans to determine places of high-leverage change, find areas of consensus, partner with other funders, and identify grantees effective at working in centrist, bipartisan ways.

We are also hypervigilant of legal restrictions and have deliberately hired staff who understand how policy gets made, who know how campaigns are built, and who can leverage their own relationships with advocates and policymakers. The results have been meaningful, lasting changes in each of the issue areas in which we work.

Early childhood work

Starting in 2014, after talking with lots of stakeholders across the state, the foundation developed an early childhood strategic plan focused on three goals:

  1. Expanding access to high quality early childhood programs, particularly home visiting (one-to-one coaching and support for new parents), child care and and prekindergarten
  2. Improving effectiveness of early childhood workforce preparation and training
  3. Establishing sustainable funding streams and a well-coordinated governance structure

Since then, we have funded research into best practices in each of these areas, demonstration projects with evaluation components, and advocacy. We have also created a statewide early childhood funders group made up of community and private foundations. Given the importance of public funding, we also closely collaborate with key legislative staff and leadership from agencies overseeing early childhood programs. Additionally, our funders group established and supports an early childhood legislative caucus with the goals of educating and growing the number of early childhood champions within the legislature.

The results are dramatic. In the last six years, recurring public spending on home visiting, child care and pre-K has more than doubled from $152 million to $371 million. Much of that increased spending has been aligned with significant policy victories:

  • A stand-alone early childhood department, the fourth in the nation (2019). Along with seven other funders, we supported research into early childhood governance systems, as well as a long-term business plan for early childhood programs in New Mexico. After vetting the plan with policymakers and hundreds of grassroots stakeholders, strong consensus emerged for a new cabinet-level department. The Early Childhood Funders Group made grants to unexpected messengers—including chambers of commerce and law enforcement officials—to advocate for the creation of the new department.
  • A one-of-a-kind early childhood endowment fund with an initial appropriation of $320 million (2020). Based on the establishment of the new department, the next highest priority to emerge was adequate, sustainable early childhood funding. Estimates of unmet need from the early childhood business plan helped build bipartisan support for dedicating surplus revenues into the Early Childhood Trust Fund, as well as to establish a mechanism for additional inflows in future years.
  • Leveraging federal Medicaid funds to more than double home visiting services. While the state was already investing general fund dollars in support of home visiting, significant research and advocacy led to statutory change to use federal Medicaid dollars to expand services. Much of the success for this breakthrough came behind the scenes in the Early Childhood Legislative Caucus, an advocacy effort started and supported by the Early Childhood Funders Group. State funding to leverage these federal dollars has increased dramatically in the last two years.

What’s next?

The Thornburg Foundation has been applying a similar approach to food and agricultural policy, as well as good government reform with similarly exciting outcomes. Our board is very proud of the fact that for every $1 we make in grants, we leverage another $2 in philanthropic, state or federal funding, while remaining a lean staff of five. We are also shifting into two new issue areas, water policy and K-12 education, and are crafting strategic approaches for each. We are convinced that by working together, lean-staffed foundations can have outsized influences. We welcome feedback and the opportunity to collaborate with others looking to make meaningful systems changes.

Additional Resources to Begin Your Advocacy Journey

Advocacy Field Guide for Lean Funders

The core of the guide is a set of 7 practical, field-tested steps for funding and engaging in advocacy, such as discovering the salient arguments that will move decisionmakers, finding and using effective data, and recruiting unexpected messengers. Download >>


Allan Oliver is the Executive Director of the Thornburg Foundation. He oversees the foundation’s strategic initiatives in early childhood/K-12 education, good government reform, food and agriculture, water and community funding. Allan served as a Cabinet Secretary for the New Mexico Economic Development Department and earned a Master’s in Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

Michael Weinberg has served as a Policy Officer at the Thornburg Foundation for seven years. Previous roles include program evaluation manager for New Mexico’s Legislative Finance Committee, public school teacher, and principal. Michael earned his doctorate in education from UNM and lives in Albuquerque with his wife and two teenage daughters.

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