By Gerald P. McCarthy, Virginia Environmental Endowment
How might foundations improve public policies that affect the issues and programs they care about?
There is hardly a field that foundations support that is not affected by local, state, or federal laws and policies. Whether it is K-12 education, healthy lifestyles, affordable housing, persistent poverty, or improving the environment, there are policies that can help or hinder our work. If your foundation is not engaging in public policy, you could be missing out on one of the most effective tools in your foundation toolbox.
“Who, me?” you ask. Sure. Engaging in public policy is one good way to increase your foundation’s impact — even if you grant less than $100,000 a year. And it is perfectly legal. (See Legal Parameters for foundations, from Northern California Grantmakers.)
What kinds of things can you fund?
You can help solve problems. A few years ago one local government had a smelly stretch of river in its downtown that discouraged revitalization. It wanted to know the source of that problem. For less than $3,000 we funded a local college student (with help from her professor) to find the answer. The city council was delighted with her study and approved the funds to invest in her solution and end the problem.
If your interests involve science – the way “improving the environment” does for us – you might fund research to help advance the state of knowledge about a problem. For instance, you might be interested to know how many pharmaceutical chemicals are making their way into your area’s rivers and affecting drinking water supplies. We funded university researchers to develop a way to find out. Partnering with local universities to help solve community problems is a useful way to leverage your funds and affect public policies.
You can develop and disseminate information about an issue. Your role as a convenor of different interests to discuss issues is a powerful tool. For two decades we have been a lead funder of an annual environmental conference that annually attracts about 800 business, government, academic, and nonprofits to the campus of Virginia Military Institute to learn from experts and each other about issues that concern them all.
In another example, we funded a group to pull together all the government data on the condition of Virginia’s rivers and streams, in a user-friendly, colorfully graphic way, and publish it for all to see. That really brought attention to the many miles of rivers whose quality was impaired.
Another thing that you can do is to commission a poll on your issue, find out what people think about it, what they want done about it, publish it, and get press coverage for it.
You can also fund advocacy groups to engage the government on behalf of the public interest. More on that in my next post.
Gerald P. McCarthy serves as executive director of Virginia Environmental Endowment, which he started in 1977 when VEE was established as a result of an unprecedented decision by the federal court in the U. S. v. Allied Chemical water pollution case. The Endowment is a grant making foundation whose purpose is to improve the quality of the environmentby encouraging the private, nonprofit, and public sectors to work together to prevent pollution, conserve natural resources, and promote environmental literacy.