Strengthening Philanthropy’s Role in the Resistance - Women's Foundation California

(This op-ed appeared in the Philanthropy News Digest on February 8, 2018)

By Senator Holly Mitchel (D-30th District) and Surina Khan, co-chairs of the 2018 Philanthropy and Public Policy Institute

An increase in the minimum wage. Criminal justice reforms that have led to a 25 percent drop in the number of people incarcerated in state prisons. A Domestic Worker Bill of Rights that extended labor protections and overtime pay to five hundred thousand low-wage workers. Climate change laws that are delivering real reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Expanded rights for transgender people.

Even as the federal government has become openly hostile to policy priorities such as immigrant and worker rights, environmental protections, and expanded access to health care, California has forged its own path. Not only are local and state governments standing up to oppose federal overreach, they are shaping real policy solutions that can serve as a model for the rest of the nation. And, in many cases, the state’s progressive victories have been achieved with the help of philanthropic support for advocacy efforts.

For a long time, funders were wary about getting involved in policy work. That reluctance is fading as a growing number of funders realize that policy and systems change are critical levers for achieving their equity and social justice goals. And at a time when the federal government is intent on turning back the clock on progress that has benefited so many vulnerable communities, philanthropy is coming to see the value of investing in local and state policy work aimed at protecting and advancing people’s rights.

But what is the best way for funders to support policy advocacy? How can foundations and other donors be more strategic about investing in policy change as a means to achieving their broader missions? And what exactly are the rules around lobbying and advocacy for foundations and their nonprofit partners?

The Women’s Foundation of California created the Philanthropy & Public Policy Institute in 2017 to help funders answer questions like these. During the institute’s inaugural year, thirteen philanthropists and representatives of public and private foundations, family foundations, and municipal government participated in an intensive three-day workshop designed to help them strengthen their public-policy grantmaking. One participant, Elena Chávez Quezada, a senior program officer at the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, called it “a great…introduction to how policy is shaped in Sacramento and the role philanthropy can play.”

This year”s institute will be open to up to twenty participants and will feature training and educational sessions covering all aspects of policy and advocacy funding, sessions with lawmakers and policy advocates, and networking opportunities in abundance.

The Philanthropy & Public Policy Institute is modeled on the success of our Women’s Policy Institute, a leadership and public policy training program that over the last fifteen years has helped more than four hundred fellows shape public policy in ways that are benefiting communities too often left out of the policymaking process. At last count, WPI fellows had helped pass thirty-two state laws, including the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights; the Name and Dignity Act, which expanded rights for incarcerated transgender people; and Unlock Opportunities for Families, which expanded childcare access for low income families, with far-reaching results.

Participants in this year’s Philanthropy & Public Policy Institute will pick up tips and acquire tools that can help them have a similar impact on public policy in California, and beyond. Over the past twelve months, we’ve seen how important it is for states and municipalities to support progressive policies and protect communities against efforts emanating from Washington to weaken the social safety net and reverse progress on reducing inequality. But we cannot stand idly by and expect local and state policy makers to act on their own. If we want to see legislation that advances justice and equity passed, targeted philanthropic support for grassroots organizations and advocates is essential.

Philanthropy, not only here in California but across the nation, has the opportunity — and a responsibility — to support advocacy work that is critical to ensuring that California, and the United States, continue to lead the way to a better, fairer, safer world. We look forward to seeing you in Sacramento.

Surina Khan, CEO of the Women’s Foundation of California, and Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-30thDistrict) are co-chairs of the 2018 Philanthropy & Public Policy Institute.

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