Seven Things Foundations Can Do to Shape Public Debate in the NYC Election Season

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

By Laura Wolff, Senior Program Officer, Robert Sterling Clark Foundation

The upcoming New York City campaign season is the first one in more than a decade—and only the second since 1973—where there is no incumbent candidate for Mayor. In addition, at least 20 of the 52 Council seats will be open due to term limits on their incumbents. The race for Mayor has already drawn several candidates, including the current Public Advocate and City Comptroller. As a result, we can expect a particularly lively season with meaningfully contested races between strong candidates for all the City-wide positions and many Council seats. These campaigns provide a valuable opportunity to focus public attention on critical issues of concern to funders, our grantees, and all New Yorkers; and to inform the thinking of those who will be leading our City over the next four or more years.

Here are a few ways to help ensure that our priorities receive the attention they deserve:

  • Encourage our grantees to reach out to candidates, beginning now, and help inform them about the legal parameters of doing so. With certain caveats, 501(c)(3) organizations can:
    • Attend, and urge their constituents to attend, candidate forums and ask about candidates’ positions and plans for addressing their concerns;
    • Add candidates to their distribution lists for reports and alerts;
    • Invite them to visit programs; and
    • Begin preparing a strategy for advancing their priorities with a new Administration and Council.

    None of this constitutes lobbying, so no fear!

  • Support policy briefings and forums;
  • Support coverage of policy issues by city-wide, community, and ethnic media;
  • Convene grantees and others in a particular field to develop coordinated strategies for educating officials and framing or re-framing public discussion of a problem or set of issues confronting their field, their clients, or the City as a whole;
  • Provide support and/or referrals to enable grantees to consult with communications and other experts who can help them craft public education messages and strategies;
  • Participate ourselves in meetings with candidates and elected officials;
  • Add content to foundation websites and newsletters, write op-ed pieces and letters to the editor, and speak out publicly about why and how candidates and the next Administration should address problems and issues central to our grantmaking.

Next fall’s winners and their appointees will be making policy, funding, and program management decisions that will significantly affect nearly every NYC not-for-profit organization that Philanthropy New York members support—and their clients and constituents. So let’s make sure that we and our grantees are actively engaged in shaping the governing agenda—and the public debate—about the issues we consider most vital to the City’s future.

As Senior Program Officer at the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, Laura Wolff manages the Foundation’s grantmaking program aimed at Improving the Performance of Public Institutions. The program supports policy research, analysis, litigation, public education, organizing, and advocacy related to New York City and State policies and programs in the human services, education, child and youth development, welfare reform, housing, healthcare, economic development, urban planning, and the environment. Laura was the founding Chair of the Child Care and Early Education Fund, which spearheaded the creation of the Early Childhood Professional Development Institute at CUNY. Before joining the Clark Foundation, Laura was a Senior Editor at the Free Press, Macmillan Publishing Company. She is currently on the Board of the Feminist Press and has served on the boards of Philanthropy New York, the YWCA of Brooklyn, and the Abraham Joshua Heschel School. She received her A.B. degree from Harvard College and her M.A. in Psychology from New York University.

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