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Multiplying Our Impact: Why Foundations Should Care about Policy Research


Creating a public policy research center was not a part of our original plan.

The Healing Trust’s grantmaking initially focused on programs that demonstrated measurable health outcomes for vulnerable Middle Tennesseans. Over time, we realized that public policy affects everything our grantee partners do to improve the health of our community. This realization led us to support health-focused advocacy work alongside direct services. We created an advocacy grant program to provide support for nonprofit partners advocating for policy changes and program improvements that advance health outcomes by either increasing access to health services or preventing childhood trauma.

What Changed?

In 2014, we asked our partners what additional support we could give to organizations engaged in policy and advocacy work. One priority quickly rose to the top: timely, quality, nonpartisan research and analysis on public policy issues critical to our community.

Despite several prominent academic institutions with respected policy researchers, Tennessee lacked an independent and nonpartisan public policy research center. We researched similar organizations in other states and decided to incubate The Sycamore Institute before spinning it off into a separate and independent nonprofit organization. The Sycamore Institute is dedicated to understanding and explaining the state budget and existing and proposed laws that affect the health and well-being of Tennesseans.

The Impact

Within its first year of being fully staffed, The Sycamore Institute published more than 30 reports, policy briefs, and blog posts about health policy and budget issues that affect Tennessee. As an independent public policy research center, The Sycamore Institute’s ability and agility creates opportunities to weigh in on rapidly evolving topics like how health reform efforts in Congress could affect our state.

No matter where one stands on the political spectrum, we can all agree on the value of helping public officials make better-informed decisions. “Public Policy 101s” like how health insurance markets work and the nuts and bolts of Medicaid are just as important as analysis about the impact of cost-sharing reduction provisions. Our governor, administrative agencies, and legislators at the state and federal level use The Sycamore Institute’s work to better understand key issues and communicate with their constituents.

The Sycamore Institute is also a trusted source for media outlets across Tennessee and our grantee partners. They provide important context and unbiased information to journalists covering health and fiscal policy. Our grantee partners use the research to learn more about policy issues that affect their missions and to engage with policymakers, the public, and other potential funders.

Why Should Philanthropy Think About Supporting Policy Research?

Public policy affects almost everything we do to improve the health of our communities.

Health and well-being are complex issues that demand significant public and private resources to build and maintain. In Tennessee, as in most states, health care and education are the state’s top two budget priorities.  The Sycamore Institute’s research enables citizens, policymakers, non-profit agencies, foundations, media outlets, service providers, and others to better understand the fiscal and human impact of pending policies, giving them a nonpartisan and informed stake in the process and the outcomes.

Not every foundation can or should create a policy center, but we can all support policy work in order to ensure that policymakers and the public have the information that they need to make informed decisions.  Foundations are uniquely positioned to support direct services and policy-focused systems change work that can address the root causes of the issues that we are all trying to address.  Focusing solely on direct services often benefits organizations and individuals in the short-term, but we must also extend our purview to the future in the hopes of improving population health and the disparities that exist in the health and wellbeing of our communities.

Kristen Keely-Dinger is president and CEO of The Healing Trust; Jennifer Oldham is the Trust's program and communications officer.

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