Unlikely Allies Unite for a Policy Win


Group of Business People in a MeetingIt used to be that you could scour the country and be hard-pressed to find a foundation working in the public policy arena. Fortunately, that’s changing as more and more foundations realize that the root causes of the issues they want to address are themselves rooted within the workings of policy.

But while it’s more common to find foundations working in policy, it’s still quite uncommon to find them working together on a policy issue. Policy is complicated, and figuring out one’s view and position around policy can be even more so. That’s one reason the Putnam team was so pleased to work with The Stuart Foundation in San Francisco on a recent case study about a loose collaboration of grantmakers who worked together to help create education finance reform in California.

Education finance in California is horrifically complex, and the road to reform was long. (If you’d like the summary of that story, download the case study.) What resonated most with our team during this experience was not the policy change itself, but the fact that six different foundations – with very diverse priorities and focuses for public education – all came together around this single issue and worked together to support a better approach to funding. For two years The Stuart Foundation, Dirk and Charlene Kabcenell Foundation, Silver Giving Foundation, Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation, The Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation and The Walton Family Foundation worked across lines that have been polarizing public education policy debates to focus together on one issue that made a great deal of sense to everyone.

Together, these six foundations were able to inform public discussion, build trust and transparency between the diverse parties engaged in that discussion, help create consensus, amplify voices of communities most likely to be affected by finance reform, and continually monitored and contributed to the public conversation as the new funding law moved toward passage. Their collaborative funding helped to completely redefine California’s school finance system.

How did they do it? There were several factors that made their collective work a success:

  • They kept things informal and loosely structured. There was no pressure to formally adopt a common agenda or make a financial investment.
  • They recognized and accepted a diversity of opinions. While they understood that each had a broader agenda for education, they united around the common goal of finance reform.
  • They kept the lines of communication open, and shared ideas and updates rather than trying to influence opinions.
  • Each member made their own grant decisions about which organizations and what specific activities to fund in this common effort.
  • Several of the foundations had flexibility when it came to funding decisions, which made quick responses possible as the process gained momentum.
  • The foundations maintained a high level of respect for all grantee organizations, and viewed them as equal partners. This led to greater transparency and the trust necessary to move quickly when needed.

In many ways, these cooperating foundations set an example for other groups in California to follow. They showed how to work respectfully together for the common good, and built lasting relationships in the process that will no doubt benefit the policy landscape moving forward. Best of all, they helped usher in a new system of school finance that is more equitable, efficient and effective. That’s a powerful outcome for California’s kids.

To learn more, download Many Voices, One Goal: How and Informal Foundation Collaboration Helped Make California History (full case study and executive summary).


Kris Putnam-Walkerly, MSW, is a nationally recognized philanthropy advisor, consultant and speaker. Learn how she helps her philanthropy clients  give confidently for dramatic return.

© 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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