This interview was conducted over email by Dan Brady at the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers as part of our PolicyWorks for Philanthropy interview series.
Helios Education Foundation is focused on creating opportunities for individuals in Arizona and Florida to succeed in postsecondary education. Accomplishing that vision requires strategic investment along the entire education continuum with a focus on creating a college-going culture and advancing academic preparedness for all students. Investment for Helios doesn’t stop at financial investment. The Foundation recognizes that the opportunity for lasting, sustainable change requires financial investments, as well as expertise and leadership. Within that purview of activity, we also see the opportunity for engaging in public policy issues. When appropriate, the opportunity for sustainability rests in building a public policy platform that supports the depth and breadth of evidence-based practices to positively influence broader reform.
What does working with Florida Philanthropic Network allow you to do together that you couldn’t do yourself? What does working with FPN make possible?
The Florida Philanthropic Network provides a network of funders who can come together in a safe space to learn, test new concepts and consider opportunities for collaboration. Through its statewide presence, FPN elevates the collective work of the philanthropic sector which gives the sector more credibility and influence in the statewide issues we support. The organization takes the individual priorities and actions of a disparate group of foundations and finds common ground from which to build a relevant case for why the philanthropic sector matters.
How did you come to realize working with FPN on policy would work for you? Or did you encourage FPN?
Helios Education Foundation significantly increased its community investment work in 2008. We did not lead with changing public policy. Instead, we slowly built our own knowledge, skills and credibility in the communities we served and the public policy arena. At the same time, FPN began to explore its role in advocacy and landed for the first few years in the advocacy space of raising awareness of the philanthropic sector to public policy influencers but also within its membership. Up until FPN’s engagement, the philanthropic community was largely ignored in high-level conversations around policy and had limited “know-how” around the mechanics of advocacy. As public-private partnerships are being emphasized and insisted upon in some instances, FPN has played an instrumental role in changing perceptions of advocacy within its membership and of the role philanthropy can play as partners in the process toward developing sound policy.
What is an interesting public policy issue you are engaged in through Florida Philanthropic Network right now or a recent success you are particularly proud of?
At FPN, we’ve been purposeful in our approach to public policy. What we learned early on is that the philanthropic sector had wide misperceptions of what foundations could and should do in the public policy realm. We needed to spend time on education and creating a higher level of comfort with FPN members. Additionally, philanthropy in Florida had no clear role or authority from the influencers in public policy. Our early steps have focused on building relationships and trust, and establishing a clear understanding of the valuable role philanthropy can play in policy discussions. A recent highlight was when the Commissioner of Education was asked to attend a Race to the Top meeting in DC, he included David Biemsderfer, President of FPN, as a member of his team. A few years ago, the Commissioner would never have thought to include philanthropy as a member of the team. Now, he reaches out to FPN on a regular basis for expertise, knowledge-sharing and a platform for getting input from the philanthropic sector.
How does your regional association keep you up to date with public policy developments?
FPN has several ways they engage members and keep us up to date with public policy updates and efforts. Besides the monthly newsletters that often highlight policy issues, FPN holds subject policy briefing webinars after each legislative session. They organize philanthropy issue-specific outreach in DC and involve key policy makers in meetings throughout the year to provide deeper knowledge around the specifics and implications of policy issues.
In advocacy, speaking with one voice as an industry can have a powerful affect. How does collaborating with Florida Philanthropic Network improve your work around public policy issues?
There is strength in numbers. Working together lends to the credibility that commitment or concern around an issue is not in the selfish interest of one organization. Additionally, diverse thoughts, approaches, and networks reinforce the effectiveness of the advocacy efforts. In a state as diverse as Florida on so many spectrums, a variety of voices and perspectives strengthens the efforts to be more representative of a broader constituency.