What Does It Mean to Do Policy Work in a Foundation?

by Kenneth W. Austin
Senior Counsel and Corporate Secretary, The Wallace Foundation

For years, The Wallace Foundation has worked for beneficial change in our areas of interest: school leadership, afterschool and the arts. We do this by developing and then sharing evidence-based information and ideas in our fields. The chart below sketches out how we work. You’ll notice that one of three chief aspects of our approach is to “catalyze broad impact” — which we describe as improving practice and policy.

We think the way we work has allowed us to make a difference. We are often credited by education leaders with having helped put leadership on the map, for example. Still, we wanted to see if we could accomplish more in the policy arena, and I was brought on board last year to lead an effort to consider our options for engaging in public policy more explicitly and consistently.

I helped form a Wallace team that set out to develop: a common language and better understanding of our past policy work; a set of principles to guide future work; and an analysis of the potential risks involved. Here is what we learned:

1. The words used in policy work have varied meanings, so we needed to define our terms clearly.

2. Public policy is broad; it encompasses government action to address issues not only through laws but also regulations, enforcement priorities and/or programs.

3. Policymakers include those who implement policy, not just those who set it. Those who influence policy play an important role, too.

4. Foundations are not prohibited from advocacy unless it involves lobbying. Indeed, foundations have more latitude than they often think. They can, for example, provide support to groups that lobby (though not for the activity itself) and share objective, nonpartisan analysis.

We also wanted to develop a shared understanding of the policy process. A literature review we conducted helped us develop a framework that seemed right for Wallace, one based in part on the work of the distinguished scholar Charles Lindblom:

The framework draws from Kingdon’s “policy window” ideas, described in his book Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (2d ed. 1995). Policy windows are opportunities for influence that occur with a favorable confluence of:

1. Priority – matters of sufficient concern to a critical mass of policy setters, implementers and influencers to make action possible;

2. Feasible solutions – policy proposals with evidence of success; and

3. Insufficient opposition – the inability of those opposing the proposed policy change to block it.

The framework suggests foundations can contribute to progress in each element, especially in elevating priorities and developing feasible solutions.

Risk aversion often blocks foundations from more intense policy engagement. We identified five classes of risk to anticipate and consider, from provoking unwanted controversy to losing tax-exempt status:

This added up to four implications for Wallace:

1. We need to take the long view.

2. We need to be adaptable.

3. We need to think in terms of what we have contributed to policy and practice, not what can be attributed to us.

4. We need to understand our risk tolerance.

We are still at the early stages of our work. The next step is to develop a process to guide our public policy decision making. We will train staff and continue to engage our board. Our long-term goal is to enhance our contribution to effective public policy while managing the risks and closely monitoring the changing policy context.

We look forward to sharing future lessons with our peers and also learning from you.

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