PolicyWorks Spotlight: Kathleen Pierce, Kirkpatrick Family Foundation


Kathleen Pierce is the managing trustee of the Kirkpatrick Family Foundation, a small family Foundation based in Seattle, WA. She’s also the vice chair of the Philanthropy Northwest public policy committee.

Mindie Reule, Public Policy Program Manager at Philanthropy Northwest, conducted this interview with Kathleen over email as part of our new PolicyWorks for Philanthropy interview series.

What does working with Philanthropy Northwest allow you to do in the public policy area that you couldn’t do yourself? What does working with Philanthropy Northwest make possible?

First, Philanthropy Northwest gives our foundation some tools, such as information on IRS rules and evaluation approaches, that have helped our small family foundation fund advocacy work more effectively. Perhaps more important for our foundation, however, are the many ways that Philanthropy Northwest has “greased the wheels” to enable us to work collaboratively with other foundations, and with government. I have found over the years that policy work is best done collaboratively. I have also found that while foundations sometimes expressly set out to work together to achieve a specific policy change, such as creating a portal to public benefits, more frequently, foundations start tackling a problem together and end up realizing that policy work is an essential systems-level change for solving that problem. That said, it is very hard to get the right collaborative partners to the table and harder still to keep them there, and this is where Philanthropy Northwest has often played a big role. Staff members have helped to identify and invite the right folks, arrange and facilitate meetings, do policy and community research, support collaborative planning, and now Philanthropy Northwest has the specific skills and relationships to do even more to support collaborative efforts—through the talents of the Giving Practice, Philanthropy Northwest’s consulting service. People are more likely to come to the table and stay there if they know there will be high level, trusted support for their efforts.

How did you come to realize working with Philanthropy Northwest on policy would work for you? Or did you encourage Philanthropy Northwest?

I started working on public policy at Philanthropy Northwest in the early 1990s, soon after our foundation was created. I was a member of early committees formed primarily to do government relations work. In the mid-90s, Philanthropy Northwest worked with the Washington State Department of Revenue to prevent the state from taxing foundation grants to nonprofits (as contracts for services subject to business and occupation (B&O) tax). That effort increased interest in the membership to do more policy work. However, we missed some opportunities for many years, I think, since we focused on our association role as representing our members interests on policy issues, not on building members’ capacity to do policy work—on their own or by working collectively. Thanks to Daniel Kemmis’ leadership (Daniel is the former board chair of the Northwest Area Foundation), this member support role is now central to our policy work, and it has made a huge difference. Our members now understand the importance of public policy work—their own and Philanthropy Northwest—and support this work financially.

What is an interesting public policy issue you are engaged in through Philanthropy Northwest right now or a recent success you are particularly proud of?

Currently, I am working with more than 20 private and public funders to form a partnership focused directly on policy work—making smart public and private infrastructure investments in housing, transportation, jobs, green space and other assets that will enable communities to develop in ways that advance equity, the environment, and the economy. In the near term, we are working together to ensure that all benefit and prosper as communities change and develop along our existing and proposed light rail lines. We are still in the early stages of our work, but are beginning to implement strategies focused on fostering community engagement, enhancing regional leadership around equity and the environment, creating a risk capital fund, and investing in good data and research. Philanthropy Northwest has played a major role in convening and supporting this complex collaborative undertaking.

In advocacy, speaking with one voice as an industry can have a powerful affect. How does Philanthropy Northwest work on behalf of all its members on policy issues?

At Philanthropy Northwest, we have not often advocated on behalf of our members on issues affecting them. Generally, we have educated our members on policy issues and focused on building strong relationships with policy makers and administrators. We have an intentional strategy of establishing our regional association as a resource for government—a first stop to learn about what philanthropy is doing in the region. I think there is growing understanding among public officials that philanthropy can play a major role in helping to solve tough public problems, and we are seeing more federal and state agencies coming to Philanthropy Northwest for information, advice, and potential partners. We are currently thinking about how Philanthropy Northwest can play a more potent role in forming and supporting public-private partnerships, which appear to be catching on in both sectors. One promising tactic may be to better engage government officials as members and co-learners at conferences, workshops, and other sessions.

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