Foundation Trustees Protect Education, Find Their Policy Voice

By Andy Carroll, Exponent Philanthropy

Three years ago in Texas, foundations confronted a profound crisis. For decades, funders working on public education have invested tens of millions and countless hours to support the public schools and the millions of students from low-income backgrounds served by those schools. These foundations have long been committed to numerous partnerships with state government. Their shared mission is to create opportunity for Texas children, and build a bright future for all Texans.

Suddenly in 2011, the foundations’ government partners cut a huge slice of their support for public education with cuts totaling more than $5 billion.

To understand the stakes for Texas philanthropists, it’s important to understand the personal nature of their philanthropy.

Many foundations with few or no staff are established by individuals who created wealth in a community in which they have deep ties. For these benefactors, philanthropy isn’t simply an enterprise—it’s a means of strengthening the place where they spent their childhood and youth, started a business, raised a family. Philanthropy for these foundations, then, is a personal investment in local issues of deep and direct consequence.

For the Texas funders, the legislature’s cuts represented not only a strategic crisis, but a kind of direct personal challenge. The cuts threatened to undermine decades of personal investment in a passionately held mission.

Trustees and staff from 40 foundations were emboldened to travel to the Texas State Capitol in Austin to begin responding. Aided by a small team with experience in policy engagement, the foundations formed a consortium and did several things:

  • Commissioned research documenting the specific impacts of the $5.4 billion in cuts on schools, students, and families. A key finding was that the cuts were affecting the very programs that have been proven effective, such as lower class size, extra tutoring support, and hours devoted to pre-kindergarten. The consortium was careful to choose researchers who could gather data in ways that lawmakers would view as credible and unbiased.
  • Got the research results into the hands of individuals and groups who would reinforce the message that the cuts have a negative impact.
  • Engaged more than 80 foundations throughout the state, in a series of meetings hosted by local foundations, to inform funders about how philanthropists can play a role in public policy, the impact of the budget cuts—especially the impact on local schools, and what was in store for debate by the legislature.
  • Published a report on the cuts specially for state legislators, framing the impact from the parents’ perspective (the stakeholders who vote).

In May 2013, the Texas legislature passed a budget that restored nearly $4 billion in funding to the public school system.

The consortium’s careful research, communications, and mobilizing work, funded by about $250,000 in grants, changed the conversation and helped bring about the restoration of funding.

These philanthropists—including 7 members of Exponent Philanthropy—have demonstrated how committed local funders can make the democratic process more representative, by bringing the interests of key stakeholders—students and their parents—to the policymaking table.

Jennifer Esterline, manager of the consortium, reflects, “Legislators perceive foundation trustees as their equals and understand the power foundations bring—especially united around focused policy objectives. Everyone comes to the Capitol asking for money. Few can offer advice about how to invest that money wisely.”

Now these same funders are joined by even more of their colleagues to prepare a return to the Capitol in 2015, again armed with objective data. Having found their policy voice, foundation trustees will continue making sure that those who are voiceless participate in crucial debates that affect their lives.

Related posts

Small Foundations Embrace Advocacy to Catalyze Change

The Pulse: Exploring Nonprofits’ Relationship With Government

Andy-CarrollSenior Program Director Andy Carroll writes resources, designs workshops, and facilitates seminars for funders. Andy also dedicates a significant portion of his time to managing our Leadership Initiative that defines, validates, nurtures, and celebrates the many ways philanthropists lead. Andy has 25 years of experience in nonprofit organizations, and he enjoys talking with funders about their questions, interests, passions, and plans for making a difference.


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