Help Local Foundations Play a Role in Youth Policy

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Many local foundations, especially the smaller ones, could use some help in understanding and working in the arena of youth policy. In meeting after meeting, practitioners and others float the thought that “policymakers and foundation officials have to work together” to make meaningful social change, leverage results, and reach greater depth, breadth and durability.

Yet grant makers often shy away from policy work, while practitioners avoid involving foundations in discussions that would enlighten them about policy challenges.

So I ask you: Are there ways for practitioners in your community to focus on the policy challenges associated with their work, and invite local grant makers to better understand these challenges and form local policy strategies?

The ability of smaller foundations to do policy work turns on three challenges. One is mission, as defined by the foundation or donor family. The second is organizational capacity. With only one or two professional grant makers on staff, policy work often gets pushed aside in favor of direct service and program support. The third is the common fear among grant makers that policy work is pushing the boundaries of appropriate foundation behavior.

Limited ability, however, does not mean impossibility. For example, with the help of local programs, grant makers are increasingly taking an active interest in youth policies, such as those aimed at easing the transition of youth from foster care, improving the policy effectiveness of youth councils, changing policies in public education and improving juvenile justice.

These are the pursuits of foundations that you might not have heard of, including these three based in New York: the Edward W. Hazen Foundation, which supports training middle and high-school age youth to become community organizers; The Levitt Foundation, which supports programs in which youth to strive to improve or protect the natural or built environment in their own neighborhoods; and the Tiger Foundation, which supports policies targeting youth aging out of foster care.

A recently released study commissioned by the James Irvine Foundation, Foundations for Public Policy Grantmaking, provides a good review of this issue. A 2004 report, Foundations and Public Policymaking: Leveraging Philanthropic Dollars, Knowledge and Networks, also adds to our knowledge about the roles local foundations can play.

Amy Carlin, doctoral student and Sillerman Fellow at Brandeis University, is finishing a study documenting the challenges and rewards of policy-relevant philanthropy in the Boston-based Paul and Phyllis Fireman Charitable Foundation (2006 assets: $228 million). The study deals with how a local foundation with a relatively small staff used its leadership and investments to influence the direction of housing and homelessness policy for families and young adults and others in Massachusetts. Carlin shows that foundations of any size can be instrumental in policy development by influencing public opinion and by helping to shape how legislators define an issue. In this case, the foundation worked with others in a public-private partnership aimed at ending homelessness in Massachusetts through a collaborative called the One Family Campaign.

Certainly, fear and misperceptions in the foundation sector drive caution about reaching out to policymakers and implementers. Fear of losing tax-exempt status or losing a reputation as an honest broker, as well as misperceptions about what counts as lobbying, are legitimate sources of anxiety for foundations – maybe even more so for smaller foundations.

Nevertheless, I believe these fears are beginning to dissipate as more and more publications and professional meetings make the case for policy engagement by all kinds of foundations. The stage is set for an explosion of cross-sector innovation in policy work.

Policy is not some radical new philanthropic focus. Julia Coffman, author of thr Irvine Study, teaches us that much of what foundations are doing already is connected to policy, although it goes unlabeled or is accomplished without fanfare. Investments in a small subset of policy-relevant foundation strategies – such as regulatory feedback, litigation, model legislation, testimonies and voter outreach – are policy roles of the most direct kind. I admit they may be controversial.

But other policy roles are not only suitable, but even traditional for foundations. Coffman lists, among other things, community mobilization, championing development, coalition-building, community organizing, media advocacy, building capacity for advocacy, leadership development, public awareness campaigns, public polling, policy analysis and public forums.

These latter examples of policy work can create excitement and positive changes in local communities and strengthen the youth sector. Practitioners should encourage local foundations to become policy players.

Andrew Hahn is Professor and Director of the Sillerman Center for the Advancement of Philanthropy at Brandeis University’s Heller School.Contact: