Strengthening the Regional Association Network’s Public Policy Work

by Claudia Y.W. Herrold, Vice President of Communications and Public Policy, Ohio Grantmakers Forum

For the past three years I’ve helped lead a unique collaboration called PolicyWorks for Philanthropy, an initiative designed to help regional associations engage policymakers at the local, state and federal levels. The initiative began as many do: an informal conversation between a funder and an RA staff member, in this case Eric Brown of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Vicki Rosenberg of the Council of Michigan Foundations. The conversation quickly expanded, bringing together another 5 RAs to explore how collectively we could strengthen RAs’ ability to engage policymakers in support of a vibrant and effective philanthropic sector.

Those conversations resulted in a collaboration where twenty regional associations (covering 39 states and representing the geographic, size and structure diversities of RA’s), have participated in a wide array of activities to build their capacity for policy work. The activities have been developed and delivered around a core of three areas:

  • raising awareness of the importance of policy work;
  • building skills and systems to effectively engage in the work; and
  • catalyzing action to successfully build and maintain relationships with policymakers.

Last summer, in conjunction with the Forum’s annual conference, we held our second PolicyWorks Institute. More than 50 RA volunteer leaders and staff gathered for two days in Denver to:

  • assess their organization’s capacities in policy work and communications;
  • learn how to engage their members in policy work;
  • study how to craft effective messages for policymakers; and
  • share information about successful policy initiatives across the network.

The Institute is the most intensive of the skill and knowledge building activities delivered as part of PolicyWorks; we also offer an extensive, online toolkit and bi-monthly webinars.

Discussion abounds at the 2011 PolicyWorks for Philanthropy Institute

I think there are 4 key elements that have led to the success of this venture so far. First, the financial support of our funders; in addition to the Hewlett Foundation that awarded the first grant, we are funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. The generous support of these funders allows us to employ a program coordinator and evaluator as well as offer the Institute, resources and webinars free to regional associations.

Second, the initiative is totally member-driven within the Forum’s network of RAs. It is led by a Steering Committee of 6 regional association staff members, who meet monthly to design activities and tools, with minimal compensation for their time and related expenses.

Third, a strong logic model laid out our vision, goals and objectives, allowing us to choose and deliver tactics and strategies that would lead to our outcomes and the success of the project.

Fourth, the involvement of RA volunteer leaders. One of the requirements for participating in the PolicyWorks initiative was a commitment that a senior level staff person and volunteer leader – someone from an RA’s board or policy committee – would participate in the Institute. Increasing their skills and connections to other peers is vital to building the long-term capacity of RAs to engage in policy work.

As 2011 ends, the PolicyWorks project will transition “from incubation to integration” as it opens up to all 35 regional associations. It will continue to be led by a Steering Committee of RA leaders and project manager and the Forum will become the fiscal sponsor. I’ll continue on the Steering Committee, as part of my role as a member of the Forum’s Public Policy Committee, although I’m handing over the reins of co-chairs to Barbara Taylor and Laurel O’Sullivan. We hope funding will continue to allow us to serve our colleagues and build our collective voice and leadership, to promote and protect the sector in coming years.


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