Two recent Council on Foundations events in Battle Creek, Mich. (Regional Learning Forum and Public Policy for Community Foundations Course), produced rich discussions regarding the capacities and roles of community foundations. A Lew Feldstein communication (2009) suggests that, similar to earthworms, “the Foundation’s job is to build the soil, to enrich the ground in which the state’s thousands of nonprofits work, to have the truly long view….” In support of this idea, a public policy course participant stated, “The most important work we have ever done is to build long-term relationships.” The capacity to promote long-term relationships and thinking represents one of many contributions community foundations make to their communities.
One avenue for community foundations to exercise their capacity for long-term relationships and thinking is public policy advocacy. As preparation to enter the public policy arena, community foundations first educate themselves regarding the true limitations as well as the misconceptions about limitations to public policy work. If the term “public policy” creates mental blocks (”we can’t lobby”), using other terms-such as “civic leadership”-may help to expand perspectives on what is both possible and appropriate. Finally, assumptions and values (e.g., the importance of “neutrality”) can create obstacles for foundations attempting to work on root causes situated in public policy.
So what is the earthworm’s work in public policy? Preparing the “ground” might include clearing up misconceptions in the sector about public policy advocacy, fostering creative thinking about civic leadership objectives, and working through obstacles. The long-term view was one of many issues discussed in Battle Creek. Others included investing in community leadership, aligning financial/social resources, and promoting awareness and improvements in social equities. The complexity of these issues demands continued discussions in the field.
Matt Mendenhall is vice president of programs for the Community Foundation of the Great River Bend.