The system needs to change. Like many family foundations, The Wright Family Foundation in Texas receives several worthy requests that we turn down due to lack of funds. Most of our grants are program or project based—reacting to the problems at hand rather than tackling them before they become an issue. Considering this, the foundation is trying different ways to combat social issues more proactively.
In 2011, the Texas Legislature was planning to cut $10 billion from the state’s public schools. As the foundation’s executive director, I was shocked when I learned 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 capital with several other funders to educate them on how philanthropy works. Despite our efforts, the Texas legislature still cut more than $5 billion 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 nonpartisan 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 state capital. Many schools had cut counselors and a wide range of support programs for low-income students—programs and services researchers found to have some of the biggest impacts on educational outcomes.
The legislators listened to and read the clear data we presented. In an ironic twist, they listened to the foundations more than they did to educators and school leaders. Why? Because in politicians’ eyes, foundations represent power and money. 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 nonpartisan research to bring to light the devastation that teenage pregnancy is wreaking not only on Texas teenagers and their families, but also on the state’s taxpayer-funded budget.
Modern philanthropy has a choice: It can either wait and respond to governmental policies, or it can help shape them. Our family foundation learned that the biggest return we will ever get on any grant is a grant to change policy. Similarly, we learned that the biggest impact we can have on policymakers does not come from cutting checks but by mobilizing our voices.
Not only as the executive director of my family’s foundation but as a citizen, parent, and community member, I call on other foundation board members, staff, and donors to meet with your local, state, and national legislators to advocate for the 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.
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 >>
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.