By Julie Seward, TFN Inside Policy

TFN’s second installment of Inside Policy offers a series of webinars, blog posts and other learning opportunities that allow funders to explore emerging policy trends and their potential impacts on people and communities – as well as the important role of philanthropy can play in effectively advocating for and responding to policy changes.

In a time of fitful politics, the Annie E Casey Foundation pursues its belief that responsive nonpartisan federal, state and local policies are important to building and rebuilding the lives of people and places.  The TFN recently talked with Scot Spencer, associate director of advocacy and influence at the Foundation — in addition to his roles as a member of the TFN Board of Directors and PLACES advisory committee — about how Casey drives its strategies and validates its approach through a continuing chain of positive policy shifts.

Casey clearly is comfortable with its policy commitment and the benefit that accrues to the Foundation and your communities. Why does policy resonate for leadership and staff?

We believe that policy is about taking impact to scale. Program strategies and aspirational change drive any foundation, but for us, it is important to codify and imbed the tools that make the impossible become possible. Advocacy informs and reinforces our “place to base” core principles. Moreover, Casey is committed to change from the ground up — and we know that communities are critical to that process. We want the policies that we promote to be informed by the people they’ll most impact, and for us, that means lifting up authentic voices.

One example is the work Casey and our partners are leading to redevelop Pittsburgh Yards — a 31-acre site that we hope will catalyze living-wage employment, long-term career and entrepreneurship opportunities for residents in Southwest Atlanta.

Everyone involved in the project committed to ensuring residents are able to lead the planning and development in a variety of ways. This included activities like hosting monthly community meetings and site tours to brief residents on the development process and solicit input; convening working group meetings with prospective tenants and small business owners — such as welders, seamstresses and bakers — to collect feedback on building design.

This project is for residents, and we want their voices to shape it.

Data and information tracking seems to be a significant Casey priority to which you devote considerable internal resources. How does that relate to policy?

Data is a constant driver for all of our work. Internally it provides discreet facts but also allows us to gauge our approaches, influence, programmatic adjustments and effect over time. It informs our decisions and also provides real-time information to governments about what is happening and the impact of policy decisions. The foundation’s KIDS COUNT project for instance, has been used for decades to track child well-being across the nation. Jurisdictions can use the state-by-state data to measure the progress of their child-related policies, compare against the work of others, and think about how to do better. Casey is a long-term investor in its communities so we are comfortable with this tracking approach. Existing policies have many halve lives. It takes a long time to change policy trajectories that leverage successful community outcomes. Data is an important element in making those leaps.

Is there a recent “aha” moment in your work where you were reminded of the significance of Casey’s wide policy reach and commitment in changing lives and systems?

Racial and ethnic equity and inclusion has become a top priority for the Casey Foundation, and we’re increasingly looking for ways to address the racial barriers so many children and families face. By disaggregating data we are able to understand and address the widest gaps. Policy often sits in those gaps. I’ve been thinking more about the array of policy decisions that affect incarceration and criminal justice.  One day I went to a rural prison and talked with longtime inmates. Amid all of the intergenerational issues that confront both government systems and lives of internees, I asked what intervention could help their lives. An inmate responded by talking about the impediments to family visitation. When his family came to visit the cost was high – take off work, pay for a hotel, find transportation, take kids out of school. And hope that the prison is not in lockdown which means no visit and wasted costs. He asked whether there was a way to create an insurance policy for prison visits.  I was reminded that talking with people at this level is often how we better understand the questions and identify where to look for policy answers – simple or complex.

Where does a funder go to learn more about the best policy practice?

Go to a community meeting. We sometimes fail at hearing and it is a great place to really listen. Do this enough and you begin to see policy answers.

About the Author

Julia Seward is currently leading TFN’s Inside Policy efforts,  a series of webinars, blogs and learning opportunities that explore emerging policy trends and their potential impacts on people and communities.