Speaking with One Voice: 5 Tips for Joint Public Statements

News conference. Microphones.Once upon a time, it was unheard of for a foundation to engage in any kind of discourse involving public policy. Now, it’s becoming more and more commonplace, as foundations realize that in order to truly create positive change and address the various root causes of the issues they fund, policy must come into the picture.

Several of our clients have engaged in policy successfully in a variety of ways. Some work well in advance of legislative activity, bringing issues to light and convening experts to brainstorm potential policy solutions. Others work to support nonprofit organizations in their own advocacy efforts. Still others work after policies are enacted to help support their implementation.

Sometimes, foundations feel the need to speak out boldly and directly (within the limits of law) about existing policies that are detrimental to the communities they serve or to society as a whole. In the last month, we’ve seen statements from the Kellogg Foundation and the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation in response to HB2 in North Carolina, which has made national headlines for its discriminatory stance against transgendered people.

Speaking out about an existing law can be intimidating, and foundations may feel more comfortable by joining forces and sharing a voice. This provides cover, but it also means juggling multiple foundation missions, a range of board comfort levels with policy statements, as well as local or regional foundation relationships and politics. In other words, releasing a joint policy statement can be a tricky task.

Here are five key points to help simplify and smooth the process:

  1. Agree on the frame of your message before you draft it. When the Reynolds foundations mentioned above released a joint statement in response to HB2, they agreed up front to frame the message in terms of how discrimination of any kind undermines their impact.
  2. Know everyone’s “trigger words.” Some foundations will be more cautious than others, so you’ll need to err on the conservative side in crafting a message. Even words like “legislation” in a public statement may give some signers pause, and you’ll need to respect that to keep everyone on board.
  3. Be clear up front about when and where your joint statement is to be released. While one media market or event may seem like the obvious choice to deliver the message to some foundations, others may have an entirely different agenda in mind. Agreeing ahead of time when and where you’ll release your joint statement helps keep your timeline moving and your text on point.
  4. Agree on one attorney to vet the message for the group. This could be in-house counsel for the most conservative among you, or a respected foundation attorney from a firm that everyone trusts. Having one legal opinion saves time (and money) and can prevent your message from being overwhelmed by legalese.
  5. Build in time for trustee approvals. Some foundations have a small group of trustees who are authorized to approve public statements and can do so rapidly. (In my opinion, this is a best practice that more foundations should adopt.) Others, depending on size, culture or circumstance, will need more time to send your draft statement through the vetting process. Give them a deadline, but be willing to be flexible. You may not want to drop a key name from your joint signers list just because they need two more days to approve the statement.

Creating a joint policy statement is rarely as simple as writing a draft and getting it signed and published. Be prepared for a constantly moving, dynamic process in which many different external and internal forces come into play as you drive for the final goal of releasing something meaningful and (hopefully) effective.

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