The Texas Capitol is big. The tip of its dome is almost fifteen feet taller than its counterpart in Washington, DC. Decisions made there impact almost thirty million people. When you enter the building, you can feel the seriousness, history, and purpose. For anyone who believes in democracy and representative government, it is downright awe-inspiring.
Recently, I found myself again walking its corridors, but this time was different. Our foundation was leading a policy briefing on foster care for legislative staffers from across Texas. More than 75 staffers from some of the most influential senators and representatives had gathered to learn what they could do to improve policies impacting the most vulnerable children in Texas. Our legislative sponsors were key committee chairs from both the Senate and the House of Representatives.
We were not lobbying. We were educating our state legislators about the real conditions in their districts and about solutions that have been tested with our private dollars.
The federal courts have ordered Texas to fundamentally reform its foster care system. For the past three years foundations and donors in our community have committed resources to enable ACH, a leading child welfare organization, to develop an effective, community-based approach to foster care.
Now the Texas legislature is interested in implementing this community-centered approach statewide, a strategy that philanthropy has proven to work.
The conversation between our community and our state legislature is bi-directional. Local partners need the state for guidance and resources, and the state needs local partners for ideas and innovation. This two-way relationship has come about as a result of close partnership between foundations, nonprofits, and our elected officials.
We have been successful at engaging our legislative delegation because they understand the important role philanthropy plays in our community. They understand that we also have to make hard choices with limited dollars. A legislative staffer is like a program officer at a foundation. “No” is much more often the answer than “Yes.”
Along the way the North Texas Community Foundation has had its challenges. Like every foundation we pay careful attention to what we can and cannot do. We engage policymakers strategically, understanding that the most important conversations happen at home when the legislature is months from debating specific bills.
Let our work be a guidepost, not a manual for success. We have found it very beneficial to:
- Use local connections and power brokers. Your community has representatives in key positions on key committees. Build meaningful relationships with them and their staffs.
- Have a specific focus and a clear request. Every meeting and communication with a policymaker should be focused and specific. They want to help.
- Provide credible data and resources to key legislative staffers. Legislative staffers want access to good information about what works and how to improve policies. Philanthropy can provide objective data that nobody else can.
- Partner with other foundations with diverse perspectives. Foundations are a unique and different voice at state capitols. Like your community, the Texas Legislature is comprised of geographically and politically diverse communities.
- Do not forget implementation.
Philanthropy and policymakers can and must work together more closely. At the North Texas Community Foundation we are proving that this relationship can be objective, outcomes-focused, and a positive experience for all involved.
Rose Bradshaw is executive vice president of the North Texas Community Foundation. Since joining its team in 2013, Rose has guided the community foundation’s engagement with area nonprofits. She is deeply involved in the Early Learning Alliance, a groundbreaking project that aligns FWISD and area service agencies to improve early childhood education.