44 posts categorized "Policy"

Texas Border Families Fuel a Network to Build Power and Equity

October 11, 2019

Rio-grande-valleyIf you're familiar with the Rio Grande Valley and listen to the rhetoric out of Washington, D.C., you know it has nothing to do with the reality lived by most families in the region.

Even as the national spotlight continues to cast its glare on the border, a collective yearning for human dignity, civil rights, and community progress is building in the valley, which is home to more than 1.3 million people. Sadly, the aspirations of the people who live there — and the region's vibrancy — are easy to overlook.

What you won't learn from listening to the president and his supporters is that the region is home to a grassroots movement driven largely by Latinx families comprised of both U.S. citizens and immigrants that for years has been advocating for solutions to problems created by decades of structural poverty and a lack of equitable access to financial resources.

Families in the region know better than anyone how public policies create progress and economic opportunity — or fail to. Poverty and intolerance, they will tell you, are blocking human potential — and creating costs for all of us. At the same time, dignity and compassion continue to be core values of the region's residents as they organize for social change and better lives.

"This is a moment where people can see beyond themselves," says Martha Sanchez, organizing coordinator for farmworker and civil rights organization La Unión del Pueblo Entero (LUPE). "Hate is not healthy for anybody. We need to look more deeply."

A Philanthropic Network Amplifies the Voices of Families

Central to this movement-building work, community and family leaders say, is the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network, a multi-issue coalition of Marguerite Casey Foundation grantees and allies. It is among fifteen regional networks the foundation and its grantees started. (The foundation, which has invested more than $7 million in the Equal Voice Network model, also supports the Native Voice Network and a youth-led network).

 

The network is an incubator of sorts where low-income families can meet, voice ideas, and focus collectively on bottom-up, community-led policy solutions.

Grassroots leaders in the region will also tell you that the Marguerite Casey Foundation, which has been investing in community organizations in the Rio Grande Valley since 2003, is one of the few philanthropic funders to issue sizable, multiyear general support grants to nonprofits in support of family-led movement building. Those dollars are used by grantees as they see fit in their efforts to alleviate poverty and promote equity in the valley. As we like to think, that support represents both philanthropic trust and movement building in action.

"We try to be a regular presence, to see how we can connect organizations with other ones. It's about being a bridge," says Christina Patiño Houle, the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network weaver, a role akin to a coordinator or facilitator. "What we provide is convening space. The network provides the focus of pulling people in so they're in conversation."

The network is comprised of eight foundation grantees in the valley and approximately twenty allied nonprofit organizations, many of them also based in the region.

Because network members are in regular contact with Rio Grande Valley residents and the focus is on grassroots movement building, local, state and U.S. government officials — including elected ones — make it a point to stay in frequent communication with the organizations and their leaders.

"It's a testament to the network's ability to mobilize people," says Patiño Houle.

Network members meet regularly to discuss the well-being of families in the region, which boasts more than forty-five cities and hundreds of unincorporated neighborhoods known as colonias.

While the issue of immigration touches all network members in some way, families say there is more to life in Hidalgo, Cameron, Willacy and Starr counties than what is happening at the U.S.-Mexico border: families are fighting to secure healthy, stable, and safe communities, quality education for their children, and peace and prosperity. So when network members meet in working groups, they also focus on jobs, housing, civic engagement, education, and health.

Out of that collective focus comes passion-inspired efforts aimed at creating positive social change. Families are at the vanguard of these efforts.

The work often starts at one nonprofit organization, which then spreads the word to other network members. Or it can emanate from weeks or months of brainstorming after a group of network members have heard from families about the steps needed to go forward. The network also amplifies the work of its partner organizations.

Families Honor Asylum Seekers — by Dancing

The morning before Mother's Day is muggy and overcast near Edinburg, a Rio Grande Valley city about twenty-five miles from the border. At Sunflower Memorial Park, in the flatlands off state Route 107, the inviting rhythm of Mexican-Caribbean music blares from loudspeakers.

Under a metal shelter, about ninety people — nearly all women — are wearing workout clothing, shuffling left then right, hips twisting freely and arms waving to the beat of cumbia and reggaeton. It looks like a normal exercise class at a local gym, but nearby are Maria Campos, her daughters, and about fifteen cardboard boxes full of goods.

Before participants start dancing, they hand Campos and her children toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, pasta, canned food, blankets and clothing.

The donated items will go to asylum seekers and others who were recently released from federal immigration facilities and are now waiting at shelters to be united with relatives or sponsors. The event is organized by LUPE, the grassroots nonprofit started by activists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in 1989. Campos and her daughters are LUPE members. They and the participants at the park are continuing the work of serving humanity.

"This is the closest that many community members will get to what's happening at the border," says John-Michael Torres, LUPE's communications coordinator, as the music continues in the background. "We want to lift up treating people the way we want to be treated."

Campos, who lives in a colonia near Edinburg, has visited shelters with other LUPE members — some of whom have read books to migrant children there — to offer support to asylum seekers released from U.S. detention facilities.

"I put my hand on their shoulder," she says in Spanish. "I tell them, 'You are not alone.'"

Families Lend a Hand to Asylum Seekers

Mother's Day, and the air is still thick and humid in Brownsville, which sits about sixty miles southeast of Edinburg. At the city's bus station — minutes from a U.S. Mexico-border crossing — Sergio Cordova has arrived with food and supplies for immigrants and asylum seekers following their release from U.S. detention.

He is a volunteer with Team Brownsville, a humanitarian organization that provides food and emergency supplies to asylum seekers and migrants on both sides of the border. The network supports Team Brownsville by amplifying its needs and supporting its communication efforts.

As asylum seekers have arrived at the border in recent months, nonprofit organizations, including the ACLU of Texas, have dispatched staff members to talk with them about the conditions there and their treatment by U.S. authorities. U.S. border guards are stationed at the midpoint of the bridge that crosses the river to Brownsville, and these days they turn away asylum seekers looking to be processed at the border and instruct them to wait in Mexico. Advocates say the old protocol of allowing asylum seekers to start the process after they had crossed onto U.S. soil was safer and more compassionate for families fleeing strife, turmoil, and violence.

Inside the Brownsville bus station, passengers are waiting to board buses to distant points. At first, it's hard to determine who might have been released from federal immigration detention or how long a person or family might have been at the bus station. Some newly-released migrants spend days there, patiently waiting to be reunited with relatives or sponsors in the U.S.

Cordova, a local school district employee who grew up in an immigrant family, scans the room looking for people without shoelaces and belts. Immigrants and asylum seekers who were just released from federal detention aren't likely to have either, as U.S. authorities, citing safety reasons, require that they be turned over.

Cordova gives food to an immigrant family who hasn't eaten in days, and then an older woman approaches, saying in Spanish that people nearby need help. A younger woman quickly follows, keeping an eye on Cordova.

The younger woman, who appears to be in her twenties, looks distraught. Her brown hair is frazzled, and a small towel is draped over her shoulder. When she moves again, it's clear she's not alone. An infant, a girl, is sleeping on a metal bench in the waiting area. Cordova rips open a pack of diapers and hands the mother a stack along with a toothbrush. Soon, a bowl of cereal is placed next to the girl, who is covered by a blanket.

The mother pauses and smiles slightly. She tells Cordova she is from Honduras and that it's taken a month for her and her daughter to make their way to the border. Asylum seekers often make the journey by walking. It is Mother's Day.

"Any baby who comes through, we make sure they have formula," Cordova says. "All we give them is all that they'll have."

The stories that Team Brownsville volunteers and city staff hear at the bus station are harrowing and almost always involve tales of the instability, turmoil, and violence that people are fleeing, especially if they are from a Central American country. But people arrive from other countries, too, including Sri Lanka, China, Bangladesh, Kosovo, Cameroon, and Cuba.

Later in the day, Cordova and Team Brownsville volunteers walk across the U.S.-Mexico border with food and supplies for families and individuals waiting to apply for asylum. On the Mexican side of the border, as people eat the donated food, one man talks about the persecution he faced in Cuba because he is gay. He says he is looking forward to living in the United States.

Families Meet to Boost Education

Each week, members of the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network gather at a different community-based organization to chart a path to progress in other areas, including housing, jobs, and health.

The day after Mother's Day, the network's education working group is meeting at ARISE Support Center, located in a yellow two-story house in the city of Alamo. The house, which serves as the nonprofit's headquarters, is now a place for community organizing. Rooms are filled with chatter in English and Spanish.

It's fitting the meeting is at ARISE. The organization works with many nearby colonia residents, especially mothers. After getting tired of the conditions in their colonias — bumpy, potholed roads, a lack of streetlights — they became grassroots community leaders with the goal of creating positive change for their families and neighbors.

In minutes, the seats around the table in ARISE's lime green meeting room have been filled. Parents and community leaders are there to discuss ways to improve communication between families and school district officials.

School district board meetings, network members say, are held only in English — but parents in this heavily Latinx region mostly speak Spanish. Many say an English-to-Spanish translation policy at school board meetings would help support all families in their pursuit of a quality education for their children.

Also on the working group's agenda for the day: a discussion of how Mexican-American studies can be introduced into the school curriculum. Butcher paper goes up on the walls. Participants write down and discuss ideas.

"It's democracy because we are not working only for the best of one person," says Ramona Casas, a community organizer who helped start ARISE in 1987. "We're looking out for the best of community members."

A $190 Million Policy Win to Address Flooding in Colonias

Rain has just swept through the Indian Hills colonia, near the city of Mercedes, leaving the unincorporated area moist and muggy.

Near the intersection of Apache Drive and Campacuas Drive stands a sprawling tree. When neighborhood families need to discuss community issues and concerns — say, better roads or water drainage or their kids' safety — this is where they gather.

Lourdes Salinas, a community organizer with Proyecto Azteca, which works on affordable housing in the region's colonias, is standing under the tree with a few mothers. She lives in this colonia.

The women are talking about a major victory scored by the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network in November 2018: a $190 million bond measure to fund nearly forty drainage projects in Hidalgo County colonias.

The county has hundreds of colonias — some community leaders put the number at between eight hundred and a thousand. Tens of thousands of families live in those colonias because they're affordable. But colonias are located on former agricultural land that was developed with an eye to retaining water for crops, says Ann Williams Cass, executive director of Proyecto Azteca.

When it rains here, homes and streets flood. Families talk of water rising as high as their waists. The water not only damages houses, including bedrooms and appliances such as washing machines, but can block streets leading into and out of colonias. Families are unable to leave their homes to buy groceries. Mothers talk of holding young children in their arms to keep them out of the water. Sometimes they slip and fall. Kids tell their parents that even the sound of rain frightens them. Sanitation systems fail during the flooding, contaminating neighborhoods.

In June 2018, the flooding reached worse-than-normal levels. Some have dubbed the event the "Great June Flood."

After that, families affiliated with the Rio Grande Valley Equal Voice Network pressed their calls for better drainage. They went door-to-door and talked with neighbors, documented cases of flooding, attended government meetings, and studied flood maps and data. They then succeeded in putting a November 2018 bond measure on the ballot and spoke with Rio Grande Valley residents, explaining that the slightly higher taxes would benefit everyone.

Responsibility for the bond measure passing is shared by many families and community organizations, including ARISE, LUPE, and Proyecto Azteca, which all work in various colonias — places where their own families members live.

Sarai Montelongo, a mother in the Indian Hills colonia who started an influential Facebook page, used her platform to call attention to bumpy roads and the safety of neighborhood children and raise awareness about the drainage bond.

"We used to be a colonia that people forgot," she says in Spanish, standing under the large sprawling tree and near streets that have been the site of community meetings with elected officials.

While $190 million will not solve all the drainage issues in Hidalgo County, community leaders say it is a policy step in the right direction and that they will continue to work for more improvements.

"It will be a big change," says Salinas.

Rio Grande Valley, USA

Motorists looking to head north from the Rio Grande Valley to San Antonio take State Route 281. The drive takes about four hours and can be monotonous, save for the scrubby flatland greenery and what looks like a large gas station in the middle of the highway.

It's actually a U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint. Many people have questioned the need for these checkpoints so far from the border. According to the ACLU, however, the federal government can operate the checkpoints if they're within a hundred miles of the United States' "external boundary."

The ACLU also notes that U.S. border authorities are only permitted "a brief and limited inquiry into [the] residency status" of people who travel through the checkpoints. Cass of Proyecto Azteca says the federal checkpoints exist in every direction heading out of the Rio Grande Valley and are also found at airports.

A few days after Mother's Day, two U.S. Border Patrol agents dressed in olive green uniforms stand at a checkpoint lane and wait for motorists. One holds the leash of a K-9 dog.

As two visitors — a white American male and an Asian American male — pull up in an automobile, an agent wearing reflective sunglasses waves the vehicle through. No need to stop and answer a few questions; no need to show identification.

Beyond the checkpoint, however, a man with dark hair is standing in the grass just off the highway. In a matter of minutes, a U.S. Border Patrol van with flashing emergency lights arrives. Soon, two more government vans show up.

Weeks later, news breaks of crowded, unsanitary conditions at federal detention facilities along the U.S.-Mexico border, of asylum seekers and migrants confined behind chain-link fencing, of migrant children remaining separated from their parents.

Sanchez, the LUPE organizing coordinator, says these types of stories and experiences underscore how important it is for communities to work together for human rights, equity, justice, and the alleviation of poverty.

"All of this reminds us of our humanity," she says. "We bring things in our heart to keep us human. For people here, it's not an option to give up."

Brad Wong is communications manager for the Marguerite Casey Foundation. This post was originally published on the Casey Foundation website.

A Conversation With Mark Zuckerman, President, The Century Foundation

May 29, 2019

For Massachusetts folks of a certain age, the name Filene's Basement evokes memories of a crowded emporium where the hunt for bargains, especially on weekends, often resembled competitive sport. The basement was the brainchild of Edward A. Filene, whose father, William, founded Filene's in 1908. It was Edward, however, who recognized that growing numbers of American factory workers represented a new market and persuaded his father to start selling surplus, overstock, and closeout merchandise in the basement of his flagship Downtown Crossing store.

The experiment was a huge success, and the Filenes soon joined the ranks of America’s wealthiest families. In 1919, Ed Filene, already recognized as a progressive business leader, founded the Co-operative League — later renamed the Twentieth Century Fund — one of the first public policy research institutes in the country.

Mark Zuckerman joined TCF — which changed its name to the Century Foundation in the early 2000s — as president in 2015. A veteran of the Obama administration, where he served as Deputy Director of the Domestic Policy Council, leading teams on initiatives to reduce student debt, increase accountability at for-profit educational institutions, reduce workplace discrimination, and expand access to job training, and Capitol Hill, where he served as staff director for the House Education and Labor Committee, Zuckerman has worked over the last four years to bring the organization’s research efforts and policy work into the twenty-first century.

PND spoke with Zuckerman recently about some of those changes, the meaning of the 2018 midterm elections, and TCF’s efforts to advance a progressive policy agenda.

Headshot_mark_zuckermanPhilanthropy News Digest: The Century Foundation is marking its hundredth anniversary in 2019. Tell us a bit about Edward Filene, the man who created it back in 1919.

Mark Zuckerman: Ed Filene was a prominent businessman but also somebody who was deeply engaged in public policy, a rare combination in those days. The era in which he was working was a time when there wasn't strong governmental involvement in the economy, and where it was involved, it was too weak to effectively address the economic chal­lenges of the day. Things like workers' wages and benefits, anti-trust enforcement, and a lack of transparency with respect to Wall Street, something that eventually led to passage of the Securities and Exchange Act.

Ed Filene very much believed in more robust engagement by local, state, and the federal government in people's lives. And he felt that research was a linchpin of good public policy. At the time, there were very few think tanks — the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace had been started a year earlier and Brookings had been started two years before that. 

So, the idea of a private entity taking on challenges that, in the past, only government had had sufficient resources to address was something new. Today, of course, there are think tanks all over the world focused on many different subjects, but Ed Filene really was in on the beginning of the think tank movement and on think tanks as places where social policy, progressive social policy in Mr. Filene's case, would be discussed and developed.

Like Henry Ford, he believed that paying a decent wage to your employees was good for the overall economy, and in his writings he expressed support for a mandatory minimum wage. He also gave speeches about the importance of supporting the Roosevelt admin­istration in its attempt to get Congress to pass something that looked a lot like Medicare and urged people to call in their support for initiatives Roosevelt and his brain trust were proposing.

One of the public policy innovations he was most interested in was the credit union movement, and for a specific reason. At the time, the nineteen-thirties, financial institutions mostly were there to lend and cater to businesses and wealthy individuals. There simply was no infra­structure in the United States to provide the middle class — never mind lower-income folks — with capital to buy their first home or even to invest in a small business. Ed Filene viewed credit unions as a critical tool for providing Americans with capital that could help them thrive and grow the middle class. And so he embarked on a major effort, not only at the national level but at the state level, including his own state, Massachusetts, to authorize the creation of credit unions, which sort of makes him the father of the credit union movement.

PND: Let's jump ahead a bit. How does the Century Foundation's work support a progressive policy agenda in 2019? And how has the organization's model evolved over the last hundred years to support that work?

MZ: Well, one of the big changes the Century Foundation went through — and I would say it was in keeping with changes in the way policy was made over the decades — is that it evolved over the years from being essentially a book publisher, which was what it was for decades. Back then, it would engage influential thinkers about specific social policy ideas they wanted to promote in book form. Many of those titles were, of course, written for policy elites, with the idea that these ideas would be circulated and eventually find their way into the halls of Con­gress or onto the floor of state legislatures. It was a common sort of model for academic institutions and emerging think tanks during the mid-twentieth century. But over time, and especially as the Internet became more widely used, the model changed. Today, having influence in or impact on public policy requires a lot more than just having a good idea, and too many of these books end up sitting on shelves, unread. Maybe they're filled with great ideas, but there are fewer and fewer people willing to pull those ideas out of those volumes and turn them into policy.

So, the Century Foundation today is very differ­ent than it was seventy or fifty or even twenty years ago, in that we are taking more responsibility — not only for coming up with creative solutions to today's challenges, but for figuring out how to use the resources we have beyond research and the development of policy ideas to create impact.

That's the big shift — the leveraging of intellectual and advocacy resources and institutional relationships to drive policy change. When I joined TCF as president four years ago, I hired a number of people who had recent experience in the White House or in federal agencies or on Capitol Hill, because I wanted people who understood how best to approach those institutions, and how they could have an impact on those institutions. They were also people with a high level of expertise in their particular subject matter. That's been my focus as president — finding people who know who the policy players in Washington are, who have deep expertise in their subject matter and the ability to do good research, and who have wide, influential networks in the advocacy, policy, and academic communities.

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[Review] What Matters: Investing in Results to Build Strong, Vibrant Communities

January 09, 2018

For public- and private-sector leaders working to develop and implement solutions to the challenges — inequality, racism, gaps in educational outcomes and health status — that have vexed American society since the country's founding, the last few decades have been especially frustrating. As Antony Bugg-Levine, CEO of the Nonprofit Finance Fund and one of the editors of this volume, notes in his Introduction, despite collective investments in the trillions, "over 45 million Americans still live in poverty, more than half a million remain homeless...unemployment among young African American men stubbornly persists around 30 percent in many cities, an opioid abuse epidemic [rages] across [the] country," and the United States, with 5 percent of the world's population, "hold[s] 25 percent of the world's prisoners in a system that tends to warehouse rather than rehabilitate."

Book_what_mattersIn the latest addition to the What Matters series, Bugg-Levine and more than seventy-five contributors — including Peter Long, president and CEO of the Blue Shield of California Foundation; David J. Erickson, director of community development at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco; Zia Khan, vice president for initiatives and strategy at the Rockefeller Foundation; Jacob Harold, president and CEO of GuideStar; and Andrea Levere, president of Prosperity Now — make the case that progress on these and other fronts will only be achieved by shifting the collective mindset of community leaders from a short-term focus on outputs (e.g., the number of beds in a shelter occupied every night) to longer-term investments in outcomes (e.g., the number of people successfully transitioned to permanent housing).

In the area of health care, for example, Long argues that nothing short of a fundamental rethink of the nation's approach to health outcome management is needed. But despite ongoing efforts by stakeholders in both the public and private sectors to adopt electronic health records, develop health exchanges, and focus on interoperability, Long worries that "we are building a measurement system that resembles the Winchester Mystery House…[one] that contains hundreds of rooms, designed individually without relation to one another, and many staircases that lead to dead ends." What is needed instead is a clear vision for the U.S. healthcare system and a national infrastructure that supports a better, more coherent outcome measurement system. Unfortunately, Long writes, "in the current political environment, it [is] incredibly challenging to have a candid conversation about our national health values and priorities."

While that assessment might be overly bleak for those who see outcomes-oriented social impact investments as the key to "affordably address our most vexing social challenges," it is impossible to read this volume without recognizing how difficult bringing about such a fundamental shift is likely to be.

Of course, none of the book's contributors argues that such a change will come easily. Indeed, in essay after essay, the chief rationale for adopting an outcomes-oriented approach is the positive effect it can have on people living on the margins. "Across the country, extraordinary leaders are overcoming the status quo, making change happen in their communities, and pushing through the challenges," writes Bugg-Levine. Isn't that enough? Or as Bugg-Levine puts it in one of two essays he's written for the book: "Don't we already provide funding to hospitals to keep people healthy, to homeless shelters to end homelessness, to childcare centers to prepare children for a fruitful life, and to job training programs to find people permanent employment?"

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Keeping the Dream Alive: The Case for Faster Funding

September 13, 2017

DACA_protestThis is a difficult time for our country. The forces of hate and bigotry have emerged from the shadows. White supremacists are marching through the streets proudly waving swastika-adorned flags. And Donald Trump has validated them by throwing more than 800,000 immigrant Dreamers under the bus, revoking their immigration status in a callous act that could have repercussions for years to come.

The hard truth is that, in this moment, funders have to rethink "business as usual" to meet the needs of the moment: with the world aghast at the prospect of 800,000 hardworking Dreamers being deported, and with a White House tacitly endorsing white supremacy, we have to rally behind and expand the fight for justice. Now.

That means identifying innovative mobilization efforts, funding them fast, and taking our cues from the communities we are trying to empower.

Right after Election Day, the Women Donors Network worked in partnership with Solidaire Network and other funders to launch the Emergent Fund, a new kind of fund that was designed to be nimble, responsive, and led (at all levels) by people who are the most marginalized. With quick-turnaround grants of up to $50,000, the fund made it possible for new organizations springing up in response to Trump's policies, as well as those that have been organizing their communities for years, to quickly mobilize, train, and act for social justice.

Here is what we learned from that effort:

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Weekend Link Roundup (June 17-18, 2017)

June 18, 2017

Rising-TemperaturesOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the social sector. For more links to great content, follow us on Twitter at @pndblog....

Arts and Culture

On the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation's Shared Experiences blog, National Assembly of State Arts Agencies CEO Pam Breaux argues that leaving support for arts to the private sector alone "would leave millions of people behind."

Communications/Marketing

On the Communications Network site, Na Eng, communications director at the McKnight Foundation, shares some of the best practices that she and her colleagues embedded in the foundation's latest annual report.

Corporate Philanthropy

In the Detroit News, Melissa Burden reports that General Motors is overhauling its $30-million-a year corporate philanthropy program — a decision that has some nonprofits and arts groups in southeastern Michigan worried.

Diversity

"Of all the things philanthropists are trying to fix," writes Ben Paynter in Fast Company, "there's one major issue the sector seems to continually ignore: itself." By which he means the "lack of racial diversity among nonprofit and foundation leaders, an issue that remains unaddressed despite having been well documented for at least fifteen years."

Grantmaking

When are program evaluations worth reading, and when are they not? On Glasspockets' Transparency Talk blog, Rebekah Levin, director of evaluation and learning at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, breaks it down

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Nonprofits, Partisan Politics, and Tax Policy

April 27, 2017

Tax_cutsCalls for tax reform by the White House, Congress, and others have led to proposals that would have a direct and profound impact on nonprofit organizations and philanthropy. Of those proposals, one from the House Republicans calls for eliminating the tax deduction for charitable donations, one floated by the White House would eliminate an incentive for charitable bequests, and another from a coalition of nonprofit organizations would expand the deduction to more taxpayers. The three proposals couldn't be more different.

But while charities and donors are scrambling to preserve (or expand) their tax advantages, there are other worrisome proposals floating around. Most significantly, President Trump and the Republican leadership on Capitol Hill want to change the tax code to allow charities to engage in partisan electoral activity — while, at the other extreme, some want to disallow tax deductions for support of nonprofit advocacy and policy work.

Certainly, one can understand why most tax-exempt organizations would fight to protect the tax incentives for charitable contributions that support their work, but such efforts raise questions about whether charities and donors are worried more about their own self-interest than the public good.

Nonprofits' efforts to preserve and extend the charitable deduction would be less suspect were the organizations fighting for those policies as engaged in the debates over other government tax, budget, and policy initiatives — debates that profoundly threaten many of the causes and constituencies they exist to serve. When nonprofit and foundation leaders are missing from such debates, it becomes easier to impugn their motives for trying to preserve their own tax advantages. Protecting the charitable deduction is not an adequate surrogate for broader action.

Against this backdrop, the president's pledge to "totally destroy" the so-called Johnson Amendment prohibition on charities' involvement in partisan electoral campaigns needs to be addressed (as do other administration proposals).

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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.

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Foundations Engaging in Policy: Not an Option But an Obligation

March 08, 2017

Policy_word_cloudPhilanthropy as a sector produces an ever-increasing body of writing aimed at encouraging impact investments for the public good. Much of that writing ignores a key consideration: Any foundation involved with impact investing cannot be taken seriously if it does not engage in policy. For many foundations, particularly family foundations, the idea of engaging in policy work is daunting, and in too many cases it's viewed as something to be avoided entirely. But while too many foundations consider engaging in policy work to be risky, I argue that it is as important a function as grantmaking and evaluation. And if we take evaluation seriously, we have no choice but to share those learnings with others, including policy makers.

Most of us know that Congress has imposed stringent limits on foundations with respect to advocacy and even more stringent prohibitions on their lobbying activities. Fully aware of the power that comes with accumulated wealth, Congress enacted prohibitions against charitable institutions engaging in lobbying as early as 1934. Later, in 1954, then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson sponsored legislation to prohibit nonprofit organizations, including foundations, from endorsing or opposing political candidates, and extended that prohibition to churches. In 1976, Congress created five exceptions to the lobbying prohibition on foundations. They are: (1) making available the results of nonpartisan analysis, studies, or research that may (or may not) include advocating a particular position; (2) the discussion of broad socioeconomic policy as long as it's not designed to encourage others to take action; (3) the provision of technical advice to a government body; (4) "self-defense" lobbying with regard to action that may affect a charity's existence or tax-exempt status; and (5) communication with members of Congress as long as they are not directly engaged in direct or grassroots lobbying themselves.

The legislated restrictions on what foundations can and cannot do to influence legislation often scare foundation boards away from committing their considerable institutional power and knowledge on behalf of the most fundamental right of all: speaking out on matters of policy. Foundations can do better. Indeed, we have an obligation to do so, if only to ensure that our investments in the social sector are leveraged to maximize our impact. Policy work is not lobbying: policy is what results from listening, gathering data, and developing frameworks that support solutions. Policy informs legislation, which, when crafted well, integrates the solutions defined by policy.

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Evidence at the Crossroads: The Next Generation of Evidence-Based Policy

March 28, 2016

US CapitolWhen we began our "Evidence at the Crossroads" blog series, we posited that evidence-based policy making was at a crossroads. In the past six months — despite rancorous partisan debates and a fierce presidential primary season — Congress surprised everyone and passed the long overdue re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, with strong support from both parties.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) includes over eighty mentions of "evidence" and "evidence-based," and a devolution of power to states and districts to implement those provisions. And earlier this month, the Evidence-Based Policymaking Commission Act, sponsored by Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), was approved by the Senate and the House in another display of cooperation.

It is promising that at a time of heightened political rancor, evidence-based policy is finding bipartisan support. But the road ahead is still tenuous, and much will depend on whether the evidence movement can evolve. Here, I draw on the terrific ideas and insights from the authors of the series to suggest three steps for moving forward: focus on improvement, attend to bodies of evidence, and build state and local capacity for evidence use.

Focus on improvement

It's time to position evidence-based policy as a learning endeavor. Implementing and scaling interventions in different contexts with diverse groups is notoriously challenging. Promising results are emerging, but not all are home runs. The history of evaluation research shows that most evaluations yield mixed or null results, and this generation of studies will produce the same. Interventions work in some places for some people, but not others. Even new studies of established interventions turn up findings that are inconsistent with prior studies. What should we make of these results?

One direction we should not take is to obscure these findings or pretend they don't exist. I fear that already happens too often. The rhetoric of the What Works agenda — funding more of what works and less of what doesn't — has created an environment that pressures program developers to portray home run results, communications engines to spin findings, and evaluation reports to become more convoluted and harder to interpret.

Improvement could be the North Star for the next generation of the evidence movement. The idea of building and using evidence simply to sift through what works and what doesn’t is wasteful and leaves us disappointed. We need to find ways to improve programs, practices, and systems in order to achieve better outcomes at scale. Let's not be too hasty in abandoning approaches that do not instantly pay off and instead learn from the investments that have been made. After all, many established interventions had years to gestate, learn from evidence, and improve. Let's not cut short this process for new innovations that are just starting out.

This is not to say that anything goes. Patrick McCarthy reminds us that when research evidence consistently shows that a policy or program doesn't work — or even produces harm — it should be discontinued. Indeed, the next generation of evidence-based policy will need to aim toward improvement while keeping an eye on whether progress is being made.

Attend to bodies of evidence

If evidence-based policy is to realize its potential to improve the systems in which young people learn, grow, and receive care, we need to rely on bodies of research evidence. Too often, public systems are pressured to seek silver bullet solutions. A focus on single studies of program effectiveness encourages this way of thinking. But, as Mark Lipsey writes, "multiple studies are needed to support generalization beyond the idiosyncrasies of a single study." Just as a narrow aperture can exclude the important context of an image, so too does focusing on a narrow set of findings exclude the larger body of knowledge that can inform efforts to improve outcomes at scale.

State and local leaders need to draw on bodies of research evidence. This includes not only studies of what works, but of what works for whom, under what conditions, and at what cost. What Works evidence typically reflects the average impact of an intervention in the places where it was evaluated. For decision makers in other localities, that evidence is only somewhat useful. States and localities ultimately need to know whether the intervention will work in their communities, under their operating conditions, and given their resources. Evidence-based policy needs to address those questions.

To meet decision makers' varied evidence needs, the evidence movement also needs to focus greater and more nuanced attention to implementation research. Real-world implementation creates tension between strict adherence to program models and the need to adapt them to local systems. To address this tension, we need to build a more robust evidence base on key implementation issues, such as how much staffing or training is required, how resources should be allocated, and how to align new interventions with existing programs and systems. As Barbara Goodson and Don Peurach argue, we have built a powerful infrastructure for building evidence of program impacts, but we need to match it with equally robust structures for implementation evidence.

And finally, the evidence-based policy movement needs to recognize the importance of descriptive and measurement research that helps local decision makers better understand the particular challenges they are facing and better judge whether existing interventions are well suited to address those problems. For those needs assessments, descriptive and measurement studies can be critical.

Build state and local capacity

As decision making devolves to states and localities, the way the federal government defines its role will also change. In the wake of ESSA, officials in Congress and the U.S. Department of Education are aiming to move beyond top-down compliance. But to do so they will need to identify new means to support states, districts, and practitioners in the evidence agenda. States and localities are not mere implementers of federal policies, nor are they simply sites of experimentation. A key way to foster the success of the evidence movement is to support the capacity of state and local decision makers to build and use evidence to improve their systems and outcomes.

Technical assistance is one way that the federal government can support capacity, and it'll be important to direct technical assistance to state and local decision makers and grantees in productive ways. While tiered evidence initiatives such as i3 have provided grantees with technical assistance to conduct rigorous impact evaluations, assistance has focused less on other key issues: helping grantees apply continuous improvement principles and practices, vet and partner with external evaluators, and build productive collaborations with districts and other local agencies to implement programs.

Providing technical assistance in these areas would increase the ultimate success of these evidence-based initiatives.

Research-practice partnerships (RPPs) are another way to support state and local agencies. In education, these long-terms partnerships can provide the research infrastructure that is lacking in many states and districts as they seek to implement the evidence provisions in the Every Student Succeeds Act. RPPs can help districts and schools interpret the existing evidence base and discern which interventions are best aligned with their needs. In instances where the evidence base is lacking, RPPs are poised to conduct ongoing research to evaluate the interventions that are put into place. Similarly, in child welfare, research-practice partnerships could provide states with additional capacity as they develop Title IV-E Waiver Demonstration Projects to test new approaches for delivering and financing services in order to improve child and family outcomes.

The federal government is perhaps uniquely situated to build and harness research evidence, so that what is learned in one place need not be reinvented in another and the lessons accumulate. Mark Lipsey suggests that federally funded research require the collection and reporting of common data elements so that individual studies can be synthesized. Don Peurach imagines ways the federal government can support an "improvement infrastructure." We should consider these ideas and others as we move forward.

Foundations also have a role. Private funders are able to support learning in ways that are harder for the federal government to do. The William T. Grant and Spencer foundations' i3 learning community, for example, provided a venue for program developers to share the challenges they faced in scaling their programs and to problem solve with one another. In another learning community, our foundation supported a network of federal research and evaluation staff across various agencies and offices to learn from each other. A learning community requires candor and can provide a safe and open environment to identify challenges and generate solutions. Foundations can also produce tools and share models that states and localities can draw upon in using evidence. With fewer bureaucratic hurdles, we can often do this with greater speed than the federal government.

Realizing the potential of evidence in policymaking

The ascendance of research evidence in policy in the past two decades gave way to investments in innovation, experimentation, and evaluation that signaled great progress in the way our nation responds to its challenges. But for all the progress we've made in building and using evidence of What Works, we've also been left with blind spots. As a researcher, I did not enter my line of work expecting simple answers. Quite the opposite, in fact. Researchers, policy makers, and practitioners know that there is always more to learn than yes or no; more at stake than thumbs up or thumbs down. We build and use research evidence not just to identify what works, but to strengthen and improve programs and systems — to build knowledge that can improve kids' lives and better their chances to get ahead.

As we approach the next generation of evidence-based policy, it's essential we take steps to ensure that practitioners and decision makers at the state and local level have the support they need.

Headshot_vivian_tsengThe above post by Vivian Tseng, vice president, program, at the William T. Grant Foundation, is the eleventh and final post in the foundation's "Evidence at the Crossroads" series, in which it sought to provoke discussion and debate about the state of evidence use in policy, with a focus on federal efforts  to build and use evidence of What Works. It is reprinted here with permission of the foundation. You can read other posts in the series here and/or register for a free event co-sponsored by the foundation, "Building State and Local Capacity for Evidence-Based Policymaking," in Washington, D.C., on March 30.

Investing in Fundamental Science: A Grantmaker's Perspective

May 26, 2015

Harvey_v_fineberg_for_PhilanTopicA half-century ago, Gordon Moore wrote a paper in which he projected that progress in the density and speed of silicon chips would increase exponentially. In his paper, Moore envisioned how this would enable technologies ranging from the personal computer, to the smart phone, to the self-driving car. His prediction became known as Moore's Law, and it has held remarkably true for fifty years. At a recent celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of his seminal paper, Moore talked about the impact of his insight on modern technology and the crucial role of basic scientific research in making it come true.

Moore, a founder of Intel and chairman of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, noted that the technological progress we have enjoyed over the last half-century was enabled by science education and basic research. While the opportunities for discovery have never been greater, commitment to and funding for science — from government, industry, and philanthropy — fall far short of what is needed today to accelerate progress into the future.

In 1965, when Moore enunciated his insights into the development of the microchip, the U.S. government invested about 10 percent of its budget in basic research and development. Today, federal funding for basic research has fallen below 4 percent. 

"I'm disappointed that the federal government seems to be decreasing its support of basic research. That's really where these ideas get started," said Moore. "Our position in the world of fundamental science has deteriorated pretty badly. There are several other countries that are spending a significantly higher percentage of their GNP than we are on basic science or on science, and ours is becoming less and less basic."

Once a hallmark of an innovation-focused American society, corporate labs are almost non-existent today. Coupled with cuts in government funding, the United States is in jeopardy of losing its lead in super-computing, cybersecurity, space exploration, energy, and health care, a recent report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology finds.

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'Under Construction': Alliance for Boys and Men of Color

July 28, 2014

UC_logoUnder Construction is a multimedia online exhibit that showcases some of the best and brightest organizations working with males of color. The UC team of filmmakers, photographers, writers, and nonprofit experts worked directly with each of these organizations for several weeks. The collaborations yielded comprehensive portraits of the services men of color receive. Each profile features a short video, a photography exhibit, a visual program model, and a narrative essay detailing the efforts of these organizations.

Under Construction is a project of Frontline Solutions and was made possible through the support of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.For more profiles, click here.

Grassroots

Jesse Esparza stands tall as he squints into the afternoon sun.
He doesn't quite fill the dark suit that hangs from his shoulders, and his hands, clasped together before his waist, only half-emerge from their sleeves.

Under-construction-bmoc-jesseBehind him stretches Stockton's Southside, the most distressed section of the most violent city in California. Jesse tells the story of the white ribbon tied at the base of a small oak tree in McKinley Park. It's a tragic story — the senseless murder of a friend's cousin, a teenager caught up in a cycle of retaliation — and his telling is both somber and matter-of-fact. But where the trauma gets particular, he generalizes, describing the way news like this travels on seismic waves through his community. "You're in shock," he explains. "You're in denial, you don't want it to be true. You're hoping it's someone else." Only 18 years old, Jesse has already been through this set of emotions more times than would be fair in a full lifespan. One might say he possesses a wisdom beyond his years, though its acquisition is troubling.

In a quiet moment of reflection, Jesse's eyes search the blades of grass as if for answers. His skin is smooth, almond colored, his face open and strong. He seems to play an image in his mind for a few moments before looking up again, lifting his eyebrows. He reaches for words to fill the silence and lights on a stock phrase. "It's pretty crazy," he says. He repeats this again and again over the next hour, the only words he can find to move past each newly risen memory as a casual drive through his old neighborhood transforms without notice into an impromptu ghost tour. The points of interest form a web of violence, dozens of vague memorials to those friends who will never have a chance, as Jesse has, to break through.

Boys & Men

The day has been a long one. All morning Jesse has been talking change politics with some of the most engaged men and women in the state. It's the Fourth Annual Stockton Summit of the Alliance for Boys and Men of Color, a decentralized coalition of organizations working at all levels of civic engagement for policy changes that will improve the lives of young Californians. In one report after another, data show young men of color face more systemic barriers than their white peers, making them much more likely to drop out of high school, serve time in prison (or juvenile hall), be unemployed, and ultimately die young. The situation, according to those involved, is dire.

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Weekend Link Roundup (July 26-27, 2014)

July 27, 2014

War_declaredOur weekly roundup of noteworthy items from and about the nonprofit sector....

Civil Society

It was an interesting week for the Hewlett Foundation's recently announced Madison Initiative, "an effort to improve Congress by promoting a greater spirit of compromise and negotiation." On the Inside Philanthropy site, Daniel Stid, the director of the initiative, responded to a critique of the initiative by IP's David Callahan. And in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Maribel Morey, an assistant professor of history at Clemson University, criticized the "one-dimensional democratic theory" behind the initiative. To which Larry Kramer, the foundation's president and a consitutitional historian in his own right, responded in the comments section with an impassioned defense of the effort. The last word, however, belongs to Morey, who responded to Kramer with an impassioned comment of her own. A great dialogue around a critically important topic.

Communications/Marketing

Very good Q&A on the Communications Network blow with longtime network contributor Tony Proscio about the dangers of jargon and how to avoid them.

On the Hewlett Foundation blog, Ruth Levine, head of the foundation's Global Development and Population Program, expresses some frustration with the fact that the foundation's current or prospective grantees tend not to "inquire about our strategic direction...[and] seem quite satisfied to hear a superficial answer. We almost never see a quizzical look," she adds,

let alone hear questions like, "When you talk about policies that affect women's economic empowerment, are you thinking about active labor market policies like job training, or macroeconomic policies that expand growth in sectors that tend to employ women?" It's those sorts of questions that uncover the thinking behind the words, and help explain why we might fund one project or organization and not another.

The cost of having a conversation where only one side is asking questions is high. We're not getting enough feedback on whether our strategies makes sense to others with different perspectives and experience. In the absence of specifics, people may spend time proposing work that we're unlikely to fund. We get comments through anonymized surveys that we are opaque, and we spend hours writing and rewriting website text that in the end doesn't clarify much at all.

Levine ends with this: "Am I asking for an inquisition in every conversation? No. But I am suggesting that there is only one way to truly understand why we do what we do: Ask."

Environment

In this four-minute video, Paul Polak, the author of Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail and (with Mal Warwick) The Business Solution to Poverty: Designing Products and Services for Three Billion New Customers, explains why poverty is "the single biggest disruptive factor for the environment" globally.

Grantmaking

Grantmakers for Effective Organizations has published a new resource, The Smarter Grantmaking Playbook, that's designed to help grantmakers collaborate, strengthen relationships with their grantees, support nonprofit resilience, and partner with their grantees to learn and continuously improve.

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Charities and the ‘Compassion Gap’

July 09, 2014

Rosenman_headshotAny traces of the "compassionate conservatism" championed by George W. Bush in the early days of his administration has long since evaporated under the heat of Republican extremism. Today, more than three-quarters of American conservatives think the poor "have it easy," while fewer than 10 percent believe the "poor have hard lives" and receive inadequate assistance.

What's more, many conservatives believe the poor have easy lives because "they get government benefits without doing anything," ignoring not only the limits of public aid, but also the obstacles that must be overcome to obtain food stamps, Medicaid, day care, public housing, and other kinds of government assistance. In fact, more than 80 percent of conservatives also say that the government programs on which the poor so desperately depend do more harm than good.

Can four out of five conservatives really be so hard-hearted that they cannot imagine how profoundly difficult life is for people without enough money to feed their children, to fill an essential prescription for an ill parent, or to access a safe place to leave an infant while they try to find a part-time, no-benefits, minimum-wage job that gives them no hope of escaping what in many cases are slum- and crime-ridden neighborhoods? "Have it easy?" Really?

These findings are consistent in that more than half of conservatives believe that people are poor because of "lack of effort," while fewer than 30 percent of conservatives believe poverty results from "circumstances beyond [an individual's] control." Despite all we have learned over the years about the causes of poverty and related ills, conservatives seem bound and determined to reduce the issue to the simple fact of people making bad decisions and doing bad things.

That kind of thinking ought to be greeted with dismay by most charities, even if their missions address problems other than poverty. Blaming the victim does not make the work of nonprofits any easier, does not incline people to support well-meaning interventions, and, at the end of the day, is the opposite of charitable. Indeed, with respect to most problems of concern to nonprofits, there is no path forward if people are seen as the sole source of their own troubles.

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Philanthropy Not Talking Power

October 31, 2013

(Mark Rosenman is an emeritus professor at the Union Institute & University and directed Caring to Change, an initiative that sought to improve how foundations serve the public. In his previous post, he urged nonprofit leaders to do more to restore Americans' confidence in the sector's ability to serve the common good.)

Rosenman_headshotIn a way, foundations are partly to blame for the dysfunction in Congress. After all, conservative-leaning foundations helped build the Tea Party movement and are still supporting it and many like-minded organizations. Reasons for assigning blame to moderate and progressive foundations are less obvious -- and mostly have to do with actions not taken and opportunities squandered.

In the wake of the government shutdown and the destructive and economically costly legislative brinksmanship around the debt ceiling, some leaders in the foundation world are calling for philanthropy to play a more active role in healing our democracy, fixing a broken Washington, and developing an immediate action plan in support of those ends.

They rightfully note, as have others, that the myriad issues of concern to foundations and nonprofit organizations are powerfully affected by the actions of and funding provided by government. They point out that moneyed private interests continue to trump the public interest when it comes to policy. And they note the growing sense that economic inequality in the United States may be undermining belief in the American dream and our very system of government.

What's more, a survey soon to be released by the Center for Effective Philanthropy finds that a majority of U.S. foundation leaders view the "current government policy environment" as a significant barrier to their organizations' ability to achieve their programmatic aims -- and those responses were gathered before weeks of acrimonious debate in Congress and the sixteen-day shutdown of the federal government.

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Creating Paths to College and the Urgency of Now

October 29, 2013

(Rhonda Tsoi-A-Fatt Bryant is the interim director of the Youth Policy team at the Center for Law and Social Policy, a D.C.-based nonprofit advocacy organization that works to improve the lives of low-income people. This is her first post for PhilanTopic.)

Headshot_RhondaTI was a STEM whiz as a child — a seemingly unlikely thing for a girl, and an African-American girl at that, to be. In middle school, I attended a magnet program and learned computer programming while taking advanced math and science classes. In high school, I took calculus and physics and learned a computer programming language. My primary interest was engineering, so my school district helped me attend summer programs at area universities. That experience landed me a job at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at the age of 17.

Although I chose public policy instead of engineering as my life's work, those were the opportunities that put me on a path to college. My middle school and high school offered classes that nurtured my interests in mathematics and science. I had great teachers who used hands-on learning to take basic lessons to the next level. I remember our physics teacher explaining the science behind breaking boards martial arts-style and wading in the Chesapeake River in hip-high boots to learn about plant life. I also had guidance counselors who knew me personally, connected me to summer opportunities that allowed me to cultivate my academic interests, and walked me through the college application process. My family couldn't afford to pay for college. Without these opportunities, it would have been far more difficult to continue my education.

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