Public Policy and Advocacy: The Go-To Tools in the Community Foundation Tool Shed

Wednesday, January 11, 2023 - 1:14 pm
Phil Koch

The Pennsylvania Community Foundation Association (PACFA) is an affinity organization that my foundation helped to re-activate several years ago for the 35 community philanthropies in the state to share ideas and strategies and, when appropriate, act collectively on issues.

At a recent meeting of PACFA, Sam Bressi, President and CEO of the Lancaster County Community Foundation, offered that his most valuable tool for improving quality of life in his community was to pursue a unified public policy agenda. To make the case for enacting it, he compared community foundation officers building social change to carpenters on the job.

When carpenters take on a project, he said, “they don’t use only a hammer as they create. Otherwise, they would be called hammerers. Carpenters use all the tools in their toolsheds.  Likewise, community foundation leaders must use all the tools at our disposal, including public policy and advocacy.” 

At The Pittsburgh Foundation, where we’ve framed out a new strategic plan and are now acting on it, my colleagues and I are scouring that toolshed. Our workplan is tied to a vision that, to be realized, will require all our current tools and perhaps a few others to be invented. What we are working toward is a Pittsburgh region that is vibrant, equitable, and just. And it will support everyone – regardless of race, identity, or circumstance – to thrive and fulfill their potential.

Like many other regions, ours faces a long list of significant societal challenges, including a lack of affordable housing, persistent inequities in our communities of color, and seismic-level threats to democracy. One important lesson we’ve taken in attempting to make headway against these intractable problems is that our foundation-directed grant dollars and those from our donors are not enough to make positive change.

In the strategic planning process, our board members understood that to make progress against huge, systemic problems, we must change systems by working directly with policymakers. 

We have learned that community foundations are uniquely positioned to go to the toolshed and select the right advocacy tactics and policy-engagement strategies. In many cases, we foundation officers are also using the nonpartisan broker tool: we offer a safe space and candid counsel to stakeholders, which can lead to more productive ideas and solutions to complex problems. 

As a community foundation, our most effective tool is our list of relationships.  We have working relations with our grantees to help elevate community need and voice; with donors who are often influencers due to wealth and community prestige; and with grassroots and treetop leaders. We operate at the confluence of these voices, which often enables us to recommend legislation and propose regulations. 

Like the carpenter’s job site, the foundation work ground can be messy. Course corrections and recalibrations are common. But the life-improving benefits to community residents we serve are richer and longer-lasting.

This year, we learned about another critically important tool to use in combination with advocacy and public-policy development: partnerships. Working collectively as community foundation officers and collaborating with housing advocates, we convinced the Pennsylvania legislature to do a one-time $100 million allocation of American Rescue Plan Act funds for affordable housing projects, with an additional $20 million annual distribution. 

If this initiative and others like it inspire you to take your advocacy work further and start or continue to develop relationships with local politicians, then the Council’s upcoming training, co-hosted with CFLeads, was created with you in mind. Join me at Practice and Purpose of Policy, a new training course held February 1-2, to re-imagine how your foundation shows up in the policy arena and design relationship-building strategies to engage state and local public servants.

We who are committed to place-based philanthropy are charged with community building in a tumultuous period when the very concept of community is threatened. Let’s meet at the philanthropy tool shed to connect, learn, and act collectively.    

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