A few years ago, I was traveling the state extensively meeting with foundation leaders from Jamestown to Lake Placid, from Albany to Buffalo, from Syracuse to Long Island, and I was struck by how many foundations were working on similar issues and yet didn’t seem connected to other regions in the state working on similar issues including racial equity, social inclusion, early childhood and safe and healthy housing. In some cases, many foundations were working on parallel initiatives and hadn’t connected local work into state-wide coalitions. When I inquired if they had an interest in working with other regions to amplify the messages for change in Albany, there was a reticence. While foundation leaders were eager to connect with colleagues outside of their region to share information and resources, it was clear that engaging in advocacy efforts was not part of their strategies to drive towards impactful change.
Fast forward to today. The current political moment has forced most of us off the sidelines and has found the field demanding information and resources for how to be implement advocacy strategies. There isn’t a philanthropy conference, coalition or working group meeting that isn’t standing room only if the meeting is focused on advocacy. Many of the large national foundations are openly encouraging regional and place-based funders to play a much larger leadership role in supporting advocacy organizations and designing internal advocacy strategies with an eye towards systems level change. Program officers have moved from trying to convince their boards to support advocacy to sharing resources on how to evaluate their impending advocacy efforts. Foundations are convening more often to discuss how they can work together, if they should pool funds to support advocacy campaigns, retool messaging, and provide general operating support for grassroots advocates who are working tirelessly to preserve the resources and programs in communities that are vital. The tide has changed.
Today, more foundations across New York are exploring what their role should be as advocates. Wherever you focus your grantmaking in New York State, one fact is true for all of us, Albany is where fiscal resources are divvied up and policies are set and yet so few of us spend time there advocating for the causes we care about. For too long, we’ve been reacting to the decisions made in Albany and we haven’t systematically been sharing data and stories to shape how policy makers understand the issues.
The exciting opportunity that advocacy presents to those of us working in the philanthropic sector, is that it can bring us closer together as a field. We can begin to break down the upstate downstate divide and help to eliminate the constant pitting of region against region that we have grown accustomed to in recent years. Together we can identify productive and strategic ways to work with all levels of government to make New York a great place for all of our citizens. As Fred Ali, President and CEO of the Weingart Foundation in California has eloquently stated, “Speaking directly to philanthropy’s role, I continue to believe that the solutions to many of our challenges, and the system change we need, will be found through engagement with government and other actors within the ecosystems we work.” Together our voices are more powerful when we are united and we methodically eliminate the silos we work in.
For many of us, we recognize we can no longer simply react to what is happening in Albany. Instead we feel the need to be proactive and know the time has come to take a stand. Foundation leaders across New York are asking how can we amplify the messages our grantee partners champion? How can we raise awareness about what’s happening in communities throughout the state as a result of recent policy decisions? How are we bearing witness to how the lives of vulnerable New Yorkers are affected by the current climate in Washington? If we don’t join the advocates and the grantees now to tell the stories of our communities hurting, we will have missed a huge opportunity to invest in the kind of change we aspire to see.
This is where Engage New York can make a difference. Engage New York is a network of foundations from across the state that, back in 2010, set a course to learn and support each other’s work. The last eighteen months solidified our resolve to develop a common agenda that promotes equity, social justice, civic and community engagement to advance the lives of all New Yorkers. This has required us to listen to colleagues in all regions of the state and find commonality, opportunity, and connections. In this way we hope to advance the agendas of our grantee leaders who are advocating in Albany for just policies that seek to eliminate social injustices. Today, Engage New York is working to bring foundations together so they may work together strategically to address systems and advocate for a better path forward for all New Yorkers.
As a starting point, we have come together to work on:
- 2020 Census with a focus on increasing participation and emphasizing how the count will impact redistricting and federal funding in New York State;
- Just immigration and refugee policy;
- Safe and healthy housing; and
- Criminal justice reform.
In each of these areas we intend to develop an action-oriented, state-focused agenda. We aim to:
- Share real-time information about groups that are working in these areas across New York State;
- Highlight efforts our foundation colleagues are supporting that aim to address these issues;
- Engage foundation colleagues who are working on similar issues in different localities;
- Map where there are intersections among foundations and among groups that address key issues; and
- Create opportunities for foundations to develop stronger ties that enhance the work of our grantees and advance state-level policy change.
Our network is energized by the opportunities in front of us and we invite you join us and help redefine how we work with colleagues from across the state to be part of the change we seek for our communities.
Engage New York is building a network of foundation leaders who are interested in promoting policies that advance equity among the most vulnerable and marginalized communities. To join, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.