Michael Reese Health Trust, a philanthropy with assets of $159 million, is committed to the principle of ensuring all Chicagoans have access to the resources needed to live healthy lives. Gayla Brockman, President and CEO, believes that foundations should speak out in support of grantees and the communities they serve. In a previous job, as head of a foundation in Kansas City, she experienced firsthand what a foundation can accomplish by engaging in advocacy. She brought this perspective into a year-long strategic planning process which led to the adoption of a framework based on three pillars: grantmaking, incubation partnerships, and advocacy.
However, getting to agreement on how to move forward into advocacy was neither quick nor easy. So, Michael Reese reached out to Rakove and Strassberger. Both were known to Michael Reese; Roberta Rakove because of her statewide reputation as a Medicaid expert and her role as Senior Vice President for External Affairs at Sinai Health Systems, and Suzanne Strassberger because of her role as JUF’s Associate Vice President for Government Affairs and State Director.
Originally, the work was organized around the basics of an advocacy initiative: creating an agenda, expanding staff capacity, forming partnerships with allies, and developing relationships with politicians and other influential leaders. We changed our minds after stakeholder interviews.
Boards of nonprofits- be they Boards of hospitals, libraries, foundations, or human service agencies- play critical roles in advocacy. They are decision-makers and “messengers” to outside audiences. Their perspectives can illuminate debate. They know influential people and can use that to expand impact. Their power to stop an advocacy position from moving forward is always frustrating to staff.
The Michael Reese Board enthusiastically adopted the big picture of advocacy, but they were concerned about the staff getting too far ahead. It became clear that the most important outcome to reach was for the Board to “own the process” so that they could embrace advocacy in their roles as stewards of the foundation.
We identified four substantive goals for the training, guided by, in addition to Ms. Brockman, the Board chair who is a champion for advocacy and understands his Board colleagues, the Advocacy Committee chair who is a very sophisticated advocate professional, and our staff colleague. The training sessions were built around small group work tailored to challenge the group on issues they care about and to provide a framework for the Board to creates its processes and advocacy tools.
Our Four Goals
All lobbying is advocacy but not all advocacy is lobbying, an orientation to the orchestra of advocacy activities.
Creation and use of a decision-making tree as a screening tool to assess mission alignment, risks, and opportunities. How does it work to screen the issues and build consensus? Our staff colleague responsible for advocacy had drafted a model decision-making tree that tapped into all critical points. This committee tested and refined it and, in the process, grew confident in using this tool to guide their stewardship responsibilities.
Clarification of the responsibilities, especially fiduciary of the Board as well as that of other Board committees and staff. This was codified in a Roles and Responsibilities document.
Messengers to the outside world: how Board members can contribute to advocacy initiatives beyond stewardship responsibilities. Brainstorming session about personal access to influential people and how those relationships can be used to recruit champions and change the minds of the opposition. Identification of staff support for this- messaging points, briefing on difficult questions, etc.
A fifth goal was directed at professional staff. They are a huge resource with their deep knowledge of the issues and their credibility with grantees and other players. The goal was to give them tools and a process to provide critical feedback for each other as potential issues emerge.
Impact at 6 Months
When the decision about Roe vs. Wade was released, the hard work had been completed to build Board confidence in the process. The Michael Reese Health Trust was able to quickly issue a clear call to action against this assault on women’s access to care, one of the first Chicago area foundations to do so.
The other advocacy work is just beginning. We look forward to seeing how the Board and staff continue to advocate for change in keeping with the culture of nimbleness and strong support of grantees that has brought Michael Reese Health Trust a reputation for batting above its weight.