“Policy” Shouldn’t Be a Four-Letter Word


photodune-958364-california-capitol-building-m“Policy” is a four-letter word within many foundations. That’s probably because policy is a gateway to advocacy, which can lead to lobbying. And that, if done incorrectly, can land a foundation in trouble. Better just to steer clear.

Or is it?

Think about the work that you do on a daily basis to fight poverty, promote health, improve education, address any number of social ills. Then think about how many times you or those you work with have said, “You know, we wouldn’t have this problem if…” Chances are, whatever “if” is, it’s related to policy. That means if philanthropy is truly going to be effective, policy engagement may need to be part of the plan.

We’ve been very fortunate at Putnam to work with several foundations who are not afraid to get involved in policy discussions. In fact, they relish it as an opportunity to help make real and lasting change. Over the past couple of years, we’ve helped the Stuart Foundation document its work to help change California’s public education funding formula, and more recently, we’ve helped Blue Shield of California Foundation tell the story of its growing and ongoing engagement in policy to help make healthcare affordable and accessible to everyone in the state.

Blue Shield of California Foundation’s story is especially encouraging, because it reminds us that a funder’s engagement in policy work can begin long before an idea ever becomes a bill in the state house, and it can continue well past the day that bill becomes law. In fact, the vast majority of BSCF’s policy work happens in that before and after time. In the before, the foundation invests in identifying potential issues that may affect health policy (like, for instance, the implementation of the Affordable Care Act), supplying objective research to inform discussions, and convening stakeholders to brainstorm potential solutions. BSCF also will support pilots of those potential solutions before they become formal policy recommendations. On the flip side, once policies are enacted in California, BSCF works with local governments and nonprofits to determine how best to implement those policies on the ground, in real-world settings.

No advocacy or lobbying around proposed legislation, just contributions to the discussion and assistance in implementing policies that affect the populations BSCF concentrates on serving. And by helping to shape the early discussions, engaging multiple stakeholders, and then implementing new policy, BSCF continues to increase the impact of its more traditional grantmaking.

So think about it. What impact does policy have on the populations you wish to serve? What conversations could you help convene? What implementation could you help support? And how soon can you start?


Kris Putnam-Walkerly is a philanthropy expert and consultant. Read more of her articles, blogs and case studies on her website.

Upcoming speaking engagements:  Kris will be moderating a panel discussion at the Donors Forum of Illinois in Chicago on September 25th and speaking at the Exponent CONNECT conference in Arizona on October 7th. Learn more!

© 2015 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.

Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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