In an unprecedented move, 17 Southern California charitable foundations exerted their influence on the recent reforms sweeping the nation’s largest child welfare system.
Southern California Grantmakers, an association of Southland philanthropic institutions, sent a letter on June 5 to the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors urging them to approve the recommendations laid out by the Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Protection. Days later, the board approved the creation of an Office of Child Protection, which will be charged with realizing the commission’s vision of a better child welfare system. This is a mammoth task that includes improving communication among departments, measuring and tracking child abuse data, improving foster family recruitment, prioritizing education, identifying at-risk children, equalizing pay for kinship caregivers and establishing prevention programs.
“I think we had some small part in making the right outcome happen,” said Wendy Garen, president and CEO of The Ralph M. Parsons Foundation, who signed the letter and spoke at the Board of Supervisors hearing in support of the Blue Ribbon Commission on June 10.
To what extent Garen and the other foundation leaders influenced the board’s decision is unknown. But one thing is clear: The letter signals a major shift in coordinated action by Southern California’s philanthropic community.
“We, philanthropists, although well informed, have not stepped up previously to use our influence other than grant making,” said Garen, who’s worked in the charitable arena since 1978. The letter represents “a new level of engagement for philanthropy in Southern California,” Garen said.
This may be part of a national trend.
“It just started occurring four or five years ago,” said Pablo Eisenberg, a senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, referring to foundations that influence policy. Eisenberg said the most notable example was the when the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Eli and Edythe Broad Foundation used their money and influence to affect massive changes in public school systems.
A more recent example of charitable foundations affecting policy is President Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, which was the result of a group of philanthropic institutions working together to expand the opportunities for boys and men of color. While there are examples of philanthropy influencing policy, it is rare.
“It is still pretty uncommon, unfortunately, for foundations to use their resources to affect public policy,” said Lisa Rangelli of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, adding that they encourage foundations to engage directly in advocacy. But many private charitable foundations fear violating the IRS code that prevents lobbying, Rangelli said, but there are many ways to advocate without lobbying.
Southern California Grantmakers is a charitable powerhouse, made up of roughly 170 charitable organizations in Southern California. Among the 17 foundations that signed the letter, according to the association president Christine Essel, the charitable investments during the past 12 months added up to more than $160 million. To put this into perspective this sum is nearly 9 percent of the Department of Children and Family Services $1.8 billion annual budget.
“The letter was a chance to weigh in collectively in support of having these recommendations passed,” said Essel, adding that many more member organizations wanted to sign the letter but missed the deadline.
Essel and Garen said the decision to write a collective letter of support was organic. Southern California Grantmakers held a meeting in May where Blue Ribbon representatives Aileen Adams and David Sanders presented on the foremost of the 42 recommendations the commission put forth after nine months of deliberation. After the talk, many members were motivated to get the commission’s recommendations passed, according to Essel.
While many foundations and nonprofits supported the commission’s findings, there was still a fear that the board might not approve.
“We knew it wasn’t a slam dunk,” added Essel.
To have had all the work that went into the Blue Ribbon investigation and have had nothing done “would have been the most depressing outcome imaginable,” said Winnie Wechsler, executive director of Anthony & Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation, and one of the co-signatories of the June 5 letter.
Essel, with a background in politics, became president of the grantmakers’ association in February. She said she was hired to use her skills to give philanthropy more of a voice. So while the letter was a first for Essel and the other organizations, it won’t be the last.
“We are looking at doing more of this sort of work where it’s appropriate,” Essel said.
As the newly authorized Office of Child Protection begins to take shape and starts implementing the Blue Ribbon Commission’s roadmap for improving the county’s child welfare system, these foundations will play a vital role in funding nonprofit organizations that compliment those shared goals.
“None of the 17 foundations that sign on have any intention of supplanting government funds,” Garen said. “But we can add value to the findings, including supporting the nonprofits that deliver services to children and families.”
Brian Rinker is a Journalism for Social Change Fellow and a recent graduate from San Francisco State University’s journalism program.