Sustaining State Policy Infrastructure for Impact on Poverty

Gladys Washington


The lives of individuals and the quality of life in all communities are affected directly by state legislative and administrative policy.

Given the Babcock Foundation’s mission of helping people and places in the Southeastern U.S. move out of poverty, we support organizations throughout our region who advocate with low-wealth people on state policies driving education, economic development, housing, predatory lending, workforce development, immigration and a host of other issues that are significant levers for advancing or impeding opportunity and equity.  As of October 2012, we support 40 state policy organizations with grants and with Network Officer time committed to understanding each state’s context, advising grantees when appropriate, assisting with convening partners, and brokering relationships with other funders.

In the Fall of 2012, we commissioned a scan of state policy infrastructure in the Southeastern U.S. as a learning project for our board and staff. Our research included only Babcock Foundation grantees, so it is a limited but rich scan from the perspectives of 37 organizations in 11 states. The report reinforces, from a grantee survey and personal interviews, key qualities of effective state policy work that we observe in our ongoing relationships with organizations and networks:

  • Playing well together is necessary. Statewide webs of policy advocacy groups that coordinate their various strategies and resources to act collectively have more impact than organizations acting alone. Anchor organizations that work across policy issues and build the capacity of other players are essential.
  • Impact is complex. Both “leaping” and “creeping” times are critically important. During the “creeping” times when large-scale wins are politically impossible, effective policy networks and organizations are holding the line against policies that would harm low- and moderate-wealth people.  They are also researching and refining new options, adapting strategy, building new allies, and continuing to enlarge their base of grassroots constituents. Policy wins that achieve large-scale impact on large numbers of people happen in the occasional “leaping” moments of opportunity when the wins are dependent on organizational and network capacity built during the “creeping” times.
  • Pragmatism wins. The most effective advocacy brings together the broad range of strategic allies necessary to move a particular issue, including a base of low- and moderate-wealth people, their typical allies, and unusual allies such as private-sector players.Specific goals and strategy are constantly adapted based on data and on deep analysis.  What’s possible prevails over what would be perfect. Principled compromise lies behind most big policy wins by effective networks of partners.
  • Capacity matters. Organizational and network capacity includes clear mission, a base of constituents, relationships with power brokers, adaptive strategy, strong state and national partnerships, expertise in policy areas and politics, leadership, and adequate reliable resources—all focused on impact and sustained over time.

The state policy organizations participating in this study deliver clear and instructive recommendations to funders, which the Babcock Foundation accepts for itself and endorses for other funders’ consideration. They constitute an investment strategy to strengthen existing organizations and expand statewide policy infrastructure so it is more diversified and connected:

  • Grow the funding pie. State policy groups working to increase equity and opportunity and reduce poverty are under-resourced and out-spent. They present opportunities for funders to invest in larger-scale impact.
  • Provide multi-year general operating support, which allows organizations to be nimble when new opportunities for impact emerge, stable during lean times, and flexible in building their capacity for the long term.
  • Invest in the adaptive capacity of organizations and networks. The ability to understand a rapidly changing environment and adapt accordingly requires core organizational capacities such as: framing issues and telling a story in order to communicate effectively; using modern technology and social media for strategic purposes; investing in leadership development and succession plans throughout the organization; integrating racial analysis and equity into policy efforts; and developing truly sustainable financial models.
  • Build true statewide infrastructure, not just organizations.  In every state, and some more than others, gaps exist in policy issues addressed and activities (such as organizing, research, legislative advocacy) that round out a robust state policy infrastructure. Connections among existing groups and with national partners can create new  synergies and more impact.

Read and download the full report, Sustaining State Policy Infrastructure for Impact on Poverty,  here.

To our partners who participated in this study, thank you. We look forward to future impact and learning together. 

To our present and potential funding partners, we look forward to more conversation and partnership to build stronger state policy infrastructure in the Southeastern U.S.

For more information or questions about this report, please contact us.


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