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Time for Philanthropy to Take Bold Action: Invest in Policy Change

March 10, 2017

Change_buttonOver the past few weeks, we've witnessed a new administration work daily to roll back rights our communities have fought hard to win, putting in jeopardy everything from immigrants' rights and economic security to educational equity and women's health.

At the same time, and despite the increasingly politicized climate in the country, we are heartened to see people stepping up and taking action in the streets, online, and in the corridors of power. In record numbers, more and more of us are becoming engaged in the political process, participating in protests, organizing our communities, and communicating with our elected officials.

Philanthropy, too, must answer the urgent calls to take action and support programs, initiatives, and tools that can help protect communities from draconian changes in policy while advancing the values we hold dear. By tools I mean policy advocacy and organizing. If we truly hope to create a just and equitable society for all Americans, we need more funders in California and around the country to invest in advocacy and organizing efforts that help vulnerable groups and communities withstand the attacks directed against them while taking proven solutions to scale. We need community leaders who know how to work with legislatures at the state and local level to shape more just policies. And those leaders need the knowledgeable and strategic support of philanthropists willing to be partners in their work.

At the Women's Foundation of California, we know we can't create opportunities for our communities without an explicit focus on policy change aimed at both dismantling barriers and expanding rights. As the only statewide foundation in California focused on gender equity, we work every day to advance the leadership of women in public policy. Over the past fourteen years, our Women's Policy Institute has worked with more than four hundred women leaders to advance gender equity through policy change. And those women, in turn, have helped pass twenty-nine laws that have improved the health, safety, and economic well-being of millions of people living in California.

One of those laws, the Domestic Worker Bill of Rights, mandates overtime pay for an estimated 500,000 housekeepers, childcare providers, and caregivers in the state; 90 percent of those domestic workers are women, and 46 percent are immigrant women. Another example is AB 2059, which provides expedited food stamps for domestic violence survivors so they don't have to choose between hunger and their own safety. The Fix School Discipline law, which we also supported, limits the use of school suspensions and expulsions that disproportionally affect students of color.

The concrete results generated by the Women's Policy Institute underscore what can happen when community leaders are empowered to advocate for systemic solutions to some of our most urgent problems. Imagine, then, the kind of transformative change we could achieve if every funder and philanthropic organization adopted an advocacy lens to guide its giving, one that emphasized support for community-based groups and organizations working to dismantle barriers to equity and opportunity for all at the local, state, and national levels.

The possibility of real, transformative change — in California and across the country — is why we are launching a new Philanthropy and Public Policy Institute. Modeled after the Women's Policy Institute, the new institute will be organized to support our colleagues in philanthropy as they deepen their knowledge about and engagement with public policy. Funders will learn the ins and outs of policymaking, including how a bill becomes law, lobbying rules for foundations, how to engage effectively with the policy process, and how to strategically evaluate and fund policy advocacy. Funders also will be encouraged to connect with peers committed to effective policy-based grantmaking and meet with policy makers and policy advocates to hear how this work is being done in communities throughout California.

This is an urgent issue. According to the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, foundation support for marginalized communities, including low-income communities, communities of color, women and girls, and immigrant communities, grew just 15 percent over eleven years as a share of all grantmaking. The NCRP analysis also found that support for long-term change strategies proven most effective at improving the lives of low-income communities did not increase at all. Simply put, that has to change.

When we invest in systems change, we not only get a good return on our investment, we get a great return on our investment. Indeed, NCRP research shows that for every dollar invested in nonprofit advocacy, community organizing, and civic engagement, families and communities get $115 back in benefits. The bottom line for community foundations, national funders, and individual donors is clear: the most effective way to leverage our resources in the service of real, systemic change is to put policy advocacy at the center of our giving.

Headshot_Surina-Khan_for-_PhilanTopicSurina Khan is CEO of the Women's Foundation of California. To learn more about the Philanthropy and Public Policy Institute, visit https://womensfoundca.org/philanthropy-public-policy-institute

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