Friday, May 27, 2011

Advocacy and Collaboration—The Two Secret Ingredients for Leveraging Your Philanthropy

Part II of a three part series about "Philanthropy and Policy"

By Lea M. Johnson, Grant Writer and Advisor, LMJ Consulting

Imagine the difference it would make if you could bring the best and brightest people together who are committed to your issue to create lasting social change. Advocacy does exactly that. Advocacy has the power to change people’s lives and the course of entire communities. It should be one strategy you employ to leverage your philanthropy.

The examples of advocacy that inspire me are the ones that take seemingly basic issues, drill down to examine root causes and barriers, and then work to remove those barriers. The following two stories of philanthropic advocacy come from Minnesota grantmakers—the Northwest Area Foundation and the Blandin Foundation. The success of these projects can be attributed to the unique collaboration that brought donors, nonprofit agencies, community organizations, and policy makers to the same conversation to find solutions to a community problem. By bringing multiple voices to the table, these philanthropic organizations found that their funding efforts went further to achieve innovative, large-scale, and lasting solutions.

As I mentioned in my last blog post, Kevin Walker, president of the Northwest Area Foundation, shared stories with me about his organization’s work. I also chatted with several other community leaders to further explore the topic of “convening conversations.” I am excited to share my conversations with you.

“We Help Bring Them to the Table”
Last year in Montana, advocacy groups and policy makers collaborated to rid the state of predatory lenders—makers of “payday” loans. Payday loans ensnare poor people in a cycle of high-interest borrowing, where interest rates can reach 400%. The average payday borrower pays about $800 for a $300 short-term loan.

Attempts to cap the interest rates payday lenders could charge had previously failed in Montana’s legislature four times—2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009. In 2010, the strategy was
different. Grassroots organizations obtained the nearly 25,000 signatures needed to put the Payday Lending Ballot Initiative before the general electorate. The initiative passed with overwhelming bipartisan voter support, with 75% of voters casting in its favor. A month later, payday lenders from Billings to Butte had shuttered their storefronts and left the state.

Montana State Representative Michele Reinhart (D- MT 97th District) explains how the collaboration worked: “There were many groups and individuals who came together to hold predatory lenders accountable via a ballot initiative, including the Montana Women’s Foundation, Montana Women Vote, and M&R Strategic Services. They asked community leaders to do our part. I joined Rep. Sue Malek (D-MT 98th District) in a guest opinion piece in support of the initiative, and I encouraged voters to support the initiative as I campaigned door to door. While my role was small, every bit helps. All it takes is reaching out to people, including elected officials, educating them, and asking them to help advance the cause.”

The Northwest Area Foundation was one of the resources the coalition sought to support its effort. Walker describes the foundation’s role in supporting the conversation: “We gave general operating grants to nonprofits involved in the coalition. It provided organizational capacity to do the work. . . . We didn’t set the agenda, but we did help bring them to the table so they could have the conversation. Our approach is to fund local groups who are working on the ground. It’s effective because it’s grassroots.”

Representative Reinhart encourages people working on such issues to bring as much brain
power to the table as possible, and, when it’s time to engage policy makers, “to use your network of colleagues to set a meeting. Or, if you don’t have a connection, just pick up the phone and reach out. It’s as simple as that.”

“The Elephant in the Room”
The Blandin Foundation also subscribes to “bringing people to the table” and participates actively in community conversations.

Ten years ago, Blandin began leading the charge to improve early childhood education in its northern Minnesota community. The foundation convened a community group with representatives from every sector—from educators, doctors, and business leaders to preachers, parents, and pregnant teens—to determine barriers for educational readiness and success.

According to Mary Kosak, Blandin program officer, “It took us awhile, but in examining the issues with community members and nonprofit partners, we finally began to talk about the Elephant in the Room. The families and kids that we want to help need more than just early childhood education. They need healthcare, transportation, adult education services. They need, well, everything.” While there were state and county funding streams to support several of these services, they were all siloed, requiring families to submit multiple application forms to access each support service. The process was just too cumbersome.

From these conversations, Invest Early initiative was born. Invest Early blends public and private resources to deliver wrap around support to children and families. It is composed of
seemingly disparate partners, including Kootasca Head Start, four school districts, public health services, and Itasca Community College. However, together they create comprehensive services for their families and kids.

To make access easier, the Blandin Foundation’s partners worked closely with staff at Itasca County to problem-solve the application process. Now, a single screening process and streamlined application bring children and families into the program. Working with the county on an administrative level has reduced barriers to accessing services.

Invest Early shows potential for being a model for early childhood education improvement. The Blandin Foundation has committed to a longitudinal study that will monitor the outcomes for Invest Early children over the next 30 years. Blandin anticipates not just better school readiness and graduation rates, but reduced incarceration, stronger families, and a more vibrant cultural, social, and business community. As they continue to tweak the program and monitor its results, the Invest Early model shows promise that could benefit children far beyond northern Minnesota.

Blandin’s Invest Early project has gained interest at the state legislature. This legislative session, the School Readiness Coalition (another collaboration that brings together philanthropic and nonprofit partners) invited Invest Early leadership to testify before the Education Finance Committee. Frank Forsberg of the Twin Cities United Way, a leader in the coalition, explains that a state office of Early Learning would align resources within three Minnesota Departments:
Education, Health, and Human Service. Streamlining the offices will create greater efficiency and stronger outcomes in early learning, in much the same way that Invest Early does. The coalition continues to have conversations with the commissioners of those departments. Long-term, this type of conversation has the potential to improve early learning outcomes for children across Minnesota.

“Look at the Return on Investment”
Bringing people together, convening conversations, and mutually engaging in policy improvement can change the course of entire communities. It’s powerful stuff. According to Marcia Avner, a nationally respected public policy expert, “Advocacy and policy work should be one strategy for meeting [philanthropic] mission.” Why? “Look at the return on investment.” It is exponentially higher than funding direct service alone.

Marcia offered a slew of resources on public policy and advocacy strategies, which I will share in my next blog. In the meantime, consider this: The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy recently analyzed the return on investment of public policy and civic engagement work in our state. The committee tracked Minnesota foundations that invested $16.5 million in grants to 15 Minnesota nonprofits engaged in advocacy and collaboration from 2004 to 2008. According to its measurements, those investments had a net $2.28 billion impact on the state. Since we can’t plan on that kind of exponential return on investment in the stock market, it is smart money to invest in the two secret ingredients—advocacy and collaboration.

Coming up next, a closer look at the IRS rules on advocacy and lobbying, as well as strategies for employing advocacy as a tactic for meeting mission.

About Lea:

Lea M. Johnson has two decades of experience as both a grantmaker and grantseeker. For seven years, she served as a program officer and manager for a $42 million family foundation. Over the last fourteen years, she has raised millions of dollars in corporate and foundation grants for nonprofit organizations.

She serves as Principal at LMJ Consulting and can contacted at

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Become a Convener of Conversations: Making a Difference beyond Your Checkbook

Part I of a three part series about "Philanthropy and Policy"

By Lea M. Johnson, Grant Writer and Advisor, LMJ Consulting

As I listen to budget debates in the media, I am reminded of an insightful conversation I heard recently. It was about how philanthropists—from large private foundations and corporations to individual donors—have the power to influence social change beyond their charitable giving.

There is a crucial intersection where philanthropists can bring nonprofit organizations and government policy makers together to build stronger communities. I have become increasingly inspired by the idea of philanthropists as conveners of conversations. I hope to inspire others—particularly donors—by blogging about this topic and by offering resources, tips, and ideas about how to make a difference beyond just writing checks.

Here is how the conversation started for me. Kevin Walker, president of the Northwest Area Foundation, was wrapping up a session at the 2011 Grantmaking Outlook Seminar sponsored by the Minnesota Council on Foundations. He said to the crowd of attendees (and I’m paraphrasing), “It can become easy for us in the philanthropic and nonprofit sector to merely sit back and watch what is happening at the capital—while wringing our hands—wondering what the Legislature will decide to do about the budget. But, in doing so we miss an opportunity to bring people to the table to help solve problems.”

Kevin went on to say that some people in philanthropy shy away from engaging in advocacy because they interpret the IRS rules against lobbying by private foundations to mean that they can’t support advocacy at all. He pointed out that there are permissible research, education and advocacy activities that do not cross the line into lobbying, and that philanthropic folks are well-positioned to convene conversations to address the social issues they support.

This was an “aha!” moment for me. It was also a reminder of something I had learned early in my career as a program officer. In the 1990s, I was fortunate enough to work at The Wasie Foundation, a family foundation whose assets topped $42 million. One day, my executive director, by nature a big-picture guy, came into my office and said something like, “Lea, I really want to get a better handle on how we can be more effective grantmakers in the area of schizophrenia. Please call the director for the National Institute of Mental Health and get us an appointment for our upcoming trip to D.C.”

Me, out loud to him: “Sure thing, I’ll take care of it.” Me, quietly, to myself: “Really? We can do that?”

And you know what? A few weeks later we were having coffee with the director of the National Institute of Mental Health in his office and discussing how a private foundation could do the most good for the 1 percent of the population in this country—over two million Americans—who suffer from schizophrenia. We discussed the havoc the illness wreaks on individuals and families, and the significant cost it has on society. We weighed the merits of funding large national research projects versus local direct social service programs. This conversation helped inform our grantmaking over the next several years. In the years that followed, I was privileged to sit in on a number of similar meetings, on a broad array of topics, with leading Twin Cities’ business people, philanthropic executives, and thought leaders of the day.

The point here is that when a philanthropist calls to ask policy makers to take time to discuss a social problem, they rarely say no. What are they going to say? “Those pesty-altruistic philanthropists are calling again, trying to make the world a better place.” Of course not. People of influence want to be part of those conversations, and they are honored to be asked to participate.

What Kevin suggests takes this idea to the next level. Savvy philanthropists—whether individual or institutional—are the natural conveners of conversations to solve social problems. They have already invested themselves and are likely to know who the experts are in the field. This power to bring people together—to convene conversations—is a crucial way in which donors can make a difference for the social causes about which they are passionate. While donating money is important, the ability to help shape policy and improve systems is truly transformative.

Such conversations are transformational because it can recast the partisan, never-ending, and circular debates about appropriation and state and federal programming and budgets. Working to tackle a specific problem helps move the conversation from a theoretical political debate to specific problem-solving activity. By convening conversations with policy makers, nonprofit experts, and other community leaders, philanthropists can help identify workable solutions for some of our toughest social issues.

Since this initial “aha!” moment, I’ve had a few email and phone conversations with Kevin. He has generously shared his wisdom and suggested tapping into several other thought leaders on this topic. I am going to share their insights and knowledge in my blog posts that will follow. These posts will address:

  • Success stories of collaborations between philanthropy, nonprofits and policy makers
  • Understanding lobbying and advocacy for foundations and other types of institutional donors

I hope you will join me in this conversation. Now more than ever, I believe donors of all types need to become conveners of conversations, bringing together policy makers with nonprofit and for-profit thought leaders. Together, we can find inventive ways to solve our deepest social problems within our limited budgets.

About Lea:

Lea M. Johnson has two decades of experience as both a grantmaker and grantseeker. For seven years, she served as a program officer and manager for a $42 million family foundation. Over the last fourteen years, she has raised millions of dollars in corporate and foundation grants for nonprofit organizations.

She serves as Principal at LMJ Consulting and can contacted at

Monday, May 9, 2011

Philanthropy and Policy

This is the introductory post for what will be a three part series about the relationship between philanthropy and policy.

Written by
Martin Wera, Program Director, Charities Review Council.

When most people give to a nonprofit, they are giving to help provide a direct service. Either as volunteers giving their time or as donors giving their money, the intent is to address a tangible need in their community in an immediate timeframe. Be it volunteering as a tutor at a school or donating to a homeless shelter, these acts of philanthropy are an important part of our civic society – especially in the past few years with greater need across the country.

In addition to this, though, are a growing number of philanthropists – both individual and institutional –who are giving to support policy change while also giving to direct service needs. This is not a new concept, but it has been gaining attention given the budget conversations happening in Washington, DC and in state capitals across the country.

The Charities Review Council serves donors and nonprofits in strengthening philanthropy and, in so doing, our communities. For donors, we do this by providing timely, quality information on how to make smart giving decisions. Part of that information is through our reviews of nonprofits, but it is also accomplished by providing tools and resources to donors about burgeoning trends.

One of these trends as of late has been a conversation about what role does philanthropy have in relation to policy change.
Although policy change is often a slow process that can take years of effort, it is nonetheless an important piece of addressing our society’s needs alongside the direct service philanthropy that most of us are more familiar with.

Over the course of the next few weeks, we will be presenting a series of blog posts examining the connection between policy and philanthropy. We are pleased to have the help of Lea Johnson of LMJ Consulting who will be guest writing the posts. As a former program officer at the Wasie Foundation and a consultant to both nonprofits and donors, Lea brings a unique perspective. The blog posts that follow are meant to provide more information to donors, but also spark conversation. Please let us know your thoughts on this topic. Are donors giving to support advocacy efforts? If so, what are the reasons behind this decision?

Part 1: Become a Convener of Conversations: Making a Difference beyond Your Checkbook
Part 2: Advocacy and Collaboration—The Two Secret Ingredients for Leveraging Your Philanthropy