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Policy & Systems

Policy & Systems: A balcony view

Last month, we introduced the first of two pillars in our new strategic framework, Ground Building, which supports Detroit youth, educators, and residents to build individual and collective power toward a strong education organizing ecosystem. Our Policy & Systems pillar works in tandem, cultivating listeners among policy and system leaders and seeding opportunities to accelerate changes advocated for by ground builders. The focus of this grantmaking strategy will be to create a strong equitable education policy ecosystem.

A sketch of our current strategic thinking

Why work on Policy & Systems?

Policy & Systems work is not new for The Skillman Foundation, but the new strategic framework brings a deeper focus on building a policy ecosystem intentionally and systematically, not just responding to opportunities as they rise. The inequities baked into systems have to be noticed and undone—we can’t just have an outside game of work arounds; government and public institutions are a vital part of the solution.

Our grant partners have consistently rated us as having major influence on the shaping of public policy (via Center for Effective Philanthropy’s third-party surveys). From efforts such as the Coalition for the Future of Detroit Schoolchildren to our leadership role on Launch Michigan, we have a history of engaging in important policy change efforts in a variety of ways as well as funding key policy organizations that work in service of Detroit children and families.

We’ve also increasingly engaged as an embedded philanthropic changemaker, showing up visibly in efforts to rebuild Detroit’s education system over the past 20 years.

Over the past year and a half, we held a Listening Tour during which partners and community members alike echoed the need to not just patch but to transform the education systems in our city and state.  

Life-determining decisions are made every day in rooms largely unseen and inaccessible to the public—and particularly to marginalized people. Public policy is often set by people with little proximity, understanding, and responsibility to those who will be most impacted. Our goal is to change that by supporting an equitable education policy ecosystem that is informed, connected, and accountable to Detroit youth, educators, and community (i.e., ground builders).

Lessons we’re bringing forward 

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was condemned to push a boulder up a hill, only for it to roll back down each time he neared the top. Detroit ground builders can relate. But what if, standing on the other side of the hill, were policymakers and systems leaders ready with a rope to loop around the boulder and pull it over? When our ground builders’ needs and interests are centered and connected to policy and system leaders, we will see true progress toward an equitable education system.
Policy change takes collective effort.

There’s an imperative to build a strong ecosystem, not focus on the change one organization alone can drive. Most policy efforts of substance have required multiple organizations working in coalition or offering multiple perspectives on key issues for change. Our approach takes an ecosystem-wide view.

Ground builders should inform the inception and development of public policy.

Community organizations and voices are often left responding to or fighting against what is already moving, or has moved, through the legislative process. Ground builders and policy organizations need time, space, and support to work together to proactively define priorities, agendas, narratives, and ways to collaborate. This requires a longer-term horizon than one-year funding cycles. They need access and support to be at convened tables and for those with current power and influence to be accountable to their input. This requires us to leverage our power and connections, foster new relationships, and ensure they and their needs and priorities are centered in policy discussions.

It’s all about relationships.

There’s an almost invisible constellation of relationships between policymakers, staff, lobbyists, and influencers from different organizations. Relationship building takes time and must be prioritized in this work. Knowledge must be built around who key influencers are, when key decisions are made, and where there are possible allies for priorities set by ground builders.

Philanthropy as a sector is increasingly engaging in public policy.

Philanthropy has long played a critical role in seeding important pilots that serve as proof-points of what’s possible and gleaning important learnings from their work with partners that can benefit policymakers. Foundations are increasingly leaning into this position. In support of this function for Michigan philanthropy, the Council of Michigan Foundations has been steadily building capacity over the last few years to have a well-staffed government relations and public policy committee and has increased its frequency of policy briefings and organized opportunities to meet with legislators.

Policy making makes headlines, but policy implementation is critical.

A lot of attention is paid to budget and policy setting, but of critical importance is attention to the details of what is written into legislation, and the capacity of the agency accountable, to distribute resources and to implement. The easiest path is often taken, which is rarely the path that centers equity and changes outcomes for those who need it most. This is another place philanthropy can lean into policy changes.

Guided by these learnings, The Skillman Foundation is eliciting policy expertise to guide our strategies, focusing our efforts on an equitable policy ecosystem rather than individual policy wins, and centering and connecting ground builders in the policy ecosystem.

What does an equitable policy ecosystem look like?

A sketch of the components of an equitable policy ecosystem

Key components of an equitable policy ecosystem that we are paying attention to as we develop this strategy are:

Equitable Education Policy Organizations

A robust set of influential, capable organizations informing education policy. They do not have to work in lockstep but should be aware of each other’s priorities and relationships should exist between them, enabling them to seize opportunities to partner with one another.

System Leader Commitment

Understanding who currently holds positions of power and leadership, we will work to build trusted relationships, to understand their vision and priorities and support them to be connected and accountable to the needs and priorities of ground builders. Our focus will be broad and intentional, from elected officials to hired system leaders. We will build deeper understanding of timelines around decision-making and where ground builders can have greater opportunities to influence and share more about their priorities. We will convene across organizations and sectors (including the community sector, i.e., ground builders), encouraging system leaders to understand Detroiters’ needs and aspirations.

Enabling tools and projects that influence and accelerate change

Enabling tools include polling, research, seeding pilots for innovation, and building capacity for quality implementation. Projects include public/private partnerships to pilot ideas that can make the case for public investment and bring together key stakeholders needed to implement change. Additionally, there are enabling conditions that will further the work of Policy & Systems and of Ground Building. These elements will be operationalized as part of what we have referred to as the “magic in the middle.” We will contribute to:

  • Narrative Power. Through our grantmaking strategy as well as our own communications and storytelling efforts, we will amplify Detroit voices, youth especially, to “own their narrative.” This means defining their aspirational vision for the education system and dictating norms and values that shift current mental models (i.e. asserting youth as visionary changemakers and racial equity as critical for whole societal well-being).
  • Equity Data Infrastructure. This portfolio will support a set of data partners to support transparency and more impactful data collection in ways that center, and are designed by, those most proximate to issues. We seek to expand innovative data monitoring and collection that can continue to share a whole picture of how young people are faring and what is needed.
  • Funder Collaboration. We actively seek opportunities to partner with peer funders where interests and opportunities align.

Our Policy & Systems strategy development

Our Policy & Systems team welcomed Kendra Howard this month. Serving in the role of Director of Policy & Systems, Kendra brings a comprehensive background in developing and managing relationships with government officials and with community partners, developing strategic plans, and leading teams. She joins Partnership Manager for Policy & Systems Terry Whitfield, creating a dynamic duo to lead this work.

There are a growing number of foundations in the state and country that we will continue to learn from and collaborate with. We will invest time and resources to equip all of our staff to understand how to engage in this work as a private foundation, while preserving the bold and courageous ways that The Skillman Foundation approaches changemaking.

Our team will continue to engage in conversations and community co-design to develop our strategies, understanding Detroiters’ vision for an equitable education system and scanning for opportunities to influence public policy that can help bring it to fruition for the benefit of Detroit youth and our collective future. 

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