An Interview with Minnesota State Rep. Nora Slawik
Throughout her six terms in the Minnesota House of Representatives, Rep. Slawik has collaborated with foundations working to advance several early childhood and education initiatives. We chatted following her participation on a public policy panel hosted by the Minnesota Council on Foundations.
Q: What is philanthropy’s role in public policy?
State government and foundations are looking to solve the same issues facing our citizens, so it only makes sense that we work together.
Part of what we lack in the public policy arena is the ability to do strategic planning, because we need short-term wins. This is amplified by election cycles. Foundations can give us long-term perspectives on issues and solutions and help us make more strategic decisions. It’s particularly valuable when foundations provide funding to jump-start strategic planning for longer-term solutions, especially when government is facing a large deficit.
A recent example is the work of the School Readiness Funders Coalition. As part of its larger advocacy agenda, this group of foundations will fund the implementation of two pieces of the Early Childhood Policy Bill approved this session. Both focus on strategic planning by the Governor’s Early Childhood Advisory Council: $100,000 will fund exploration of the creation of an Office of Early Learning; an additional $58,000 will fund strategic planning for a statewide school readiness report card.
Philanthropy brings a non-partisan lens to issues by advocating for what it believes is best for the community. That more collaborative, strategic perspective is important to have at the table.
Evaluation also is lacking in state government. We haven’t funded or conducted it in areas such as early childhood, so when we try to compare the impact of programs such as Head Start and those focusing on child care, school readiness and preschool – all of which serve the same populations – we do not have good data. How do we decide what are good investments? Foundations can help us begin to evaluate, so we can look at reform.
Foundations can be a catalyst for change by funding pilot projects, and state government can look at making the most of the best ideas. This type of collaborative relationship truly can benefit the public, especially those most in need of assistance. If government gives a subsidy to a parent for child care, foundations can help make that quality child care.
Q: How do philanthropy and government address the great challenges of making progress in public policy?
Develop a common vision and determine benchmarks that demonstrate progress toward that goal. In early childhood, our goal is to have all children school ready by 2020. For the environment, we want most of the state’s energy companies to provide 25 percent of their power through renewable sources by 2025. What are benchmarks we can measure along the way to these goals?
Obviously there will be setbacks. Elections and turnover at foundations change the players, and there are economic cutbacks and societal shifts. We need to adjust, but we can remain true to a consistent goal.
In the political world, people take sides and we encounter opposition. We can’t count on trying to change minds, as legislators are often entrenched in their positions. It’s important to be respectful, acknowledge alternative voices, invite everyone to be part of the process, and not shut out anyone.
In the case of this session’s early childhood bills, some view the creation of an Office of Early Childhood as expansion of government, while I see it as government reform or redefinition. Regardless, we will encourage opposing legislators to be involved in the task forces created by the legislation. During the session, our basic message was, “We have a collaborative partnership with the foundations. Let’s get this passed, then let’s all be active in moving the state forward through early childhood.”
Passing a bill is not the end of the public policy process. It feels like an end, because we’ve accomplished something, but it’s really the beginning of the work to create change.
Timing is everything!
Filled with case studies of cross-sector collaborations, the guide sheds light on unfamiliar terrain for foundations and government and offers fresh insight into the benefits and risks of partnering. Developing relationships, navigating roles and power dynamics, and managing risks aren’t easy, but the resulting collaborations — as the funders highlighted in this guide attest — are important and highly effective.
- Chris Murakami Noonan, MCF communications associate