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Charting a Careful Course in Public Policy Engagement

How Wallace determines whether and how to weigh in on matters of legislation and government regulation
June 6, 2018 2 Min Read

The Wallace Foundation has a sizable endowment, but it's not large enough to fund all 93,000 public schools in the U.S., all 48,000 nonprofit arts organizations or the thousands of organizations offering expanded-learning opportunities for children. We therefore work to develop and share credible, useful knowledge that can help others who may never get a grant from us.

While most of our efforts have been focused on helping share lessons to improve practice, we’ve recently sought to strengthen our approach to sharing lessons with policymakers, as well.

We are dipping our toes deeper into the waters of policy engagement because we think the evidence we’ve developed can, when it is sufficiently strong, lead to more effective policies, should policymakers choose to incorporate it. But what might that look like?

If a state were considering changes in policies about school principals, for example, its lawmakers might benefit from becoming familiar with the substantial body of evidence we have collected about what works and what doesn’t in promoting more effective school leadership. Our goal would be to introduce credible information and ideas to legislators so they could devise school leadership policies with the greatest likelihood of improving teaching and learning in schools.

But we’ve also acknowledged that there are risks to policy engagement. In other words, these waters can be choppy. U.S. law prohibits philanthropies from influencing legislation. And riptides exist even within the firm confines of the law. Policy engagement could pull a foundation into caustic partisan politics, distract it from core areas of expertise or create adverse unintended consequences for those it seeks to help.

How can a philanthropy navigate such treacherous waters—and manage risk? Kenneth Austin, general counsel at Wallace, recently shared Wallace’s approach to considering and managing the risk to foundations of policy engagements at the Council on Foundations' Public Policy Summit in Philadelphia.  He laid out the rationale for Wallace to undertake policy engagement, the risks we see in the endeavor and the ways in which we work to mitigate these risks—chiefly by following the principle of “say more, only as we know more” and by offering options and never prescriptions. He also offered a case study from Florida to illustrate the principles we use to determine when we wade into matters of policy and when we choose to stay dry.

The considerations for thinking about risk and how to manage it may be useful to other philanthropies and nonprofit organizations exploring avenues to inform public policy and legislation.

You can also download Austin's presentation here.

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