USC Price School of Public Policy

Foundations and Public Policy

New Book Examines Foundations, Public Policy

SPPD Professor James Ferris and Dean Jack Knott contribute to a book that is central to SPPD’s goal of finding solutions to social problems.

By Ben Dimapindan

James Ferris

A new book edited by USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development professor James Ferris explores the implications – and potential impact – involving the efforts of nonprofit organizations to shape public policy.

Foundations and Public Policy: Leveraging Philanthropic Dollars, Knowledge and Networks for Greater Impact was published by the Foundation Center. Ferris, who directs the Center of Philanthropy and Public Policy at USC, is the co-author of the lead chapter that provides the conceptual framework for the volume. He also wrote the introduction and conclusion.

The book also features a chapter co-authored by SPPD Dean Jack H. Knott on foundation efforts in children’s policy.

“The study of philanthropy and the nonprofit sector and how these organizations affect policymaking are among the school’s signature areas of research,” Knott said. “This work is indeed central to SPPD’s goal of finding solutions to today’s complex social problems.”

The book addresses three fundamental questions: What are the factors critical to a foundation’s decision to engage in public policy? What strategic options are available to a foundation that decides to get involved in policymaking? What are the implications for a foundation that chooses to use its assets to influence public policy? It also describes foundations’ recent policy efforts related to school choice, wetlands preservation, child care and health care coverage.

“This is the first effort to systematically look at the choices foundations have in terms of public policy,” said Ferris, holder of the Emery Evan Olson Chair in Nonprofit Entrepreneurship and Public Policy.

“It analyzes the factors that might influence whether a foundation gets involved, and it also examines the variety of strategies and tactics available if a foundation decided to do so.”

Ferris added that the book serves multiple audiences, including foundation executives, nonprofit managers and advocacy groups as well as legislators.

“You have policymakers who often rely on foundations to help frame issues and do the research and development on critical policy issues, and so sometimes we see these partnerships,” he said. “Both government and foundations want to improve the quality of life, and they’re both interested in the common good.

“Although they have different incentives, different motives and different constraints, they’re often working toward a set of shared goals – that is where they intersect. Trying to figure out how to work together is important.”

In the book, Ferris writes how nonprofit organizations are “uniquely positioned to create the infrastructure for public policy.” They connect the knowledge, experts and policymakers that enable discourse about public problems, policy alternatives, preferred solutions and policy outcomes.

“Foundation grants are instrumental in funding research and development, advocacy, and implementation and evaluation,” he wrote. “Yet foundations can make an even greater difference than simply being an investor in public policy.”

However, Ferris noted that there are significant risks tied to such “policy entrepreneurship,” including political risks and the fallout from unrealized outcomes.

Knott’s chapter, co-written with Diane McCarthy, was a policy case study focusing on the role of foundations in establishing child care programs, which include pre-kindergarten, after-school and mentorship resources.

According to the authors, foundations can be viewed as “policy venture capitalists” that invest in particular communities and programs such as child care, and they expect a return on their investment.

“They expect that their initial foundation investment will stimulate regulatory policy changes and financial investment by government and other nonprofits to produce a broader systems impact.”



Photo by Philip Channing