By: Kristy Trautmann, executive director of FISA Foundation

So much that FISA Foundation cares most deeply about has found itself in the crosshairs this year: access to health care; funding and support to allow people with disabilities to live dignified lives in the community rather than in institutions; policies that address violence against women; inclusive public education; and, right now in Congress, a proposal that could fundamentally weaken the Americans with Disabilities Act. Add in a deeply troubling rise of hateful speech against these populations as well as people of color and immigrants, and FISA’s core mission of building a culture of respect and improving the quality of life for women, girls and people with disabilities in southwest Pennsylvania seems to be on shaky ground. Over the last 10 months, FISA’s Board of Directors has had many internal conversations about our role in responding to these threats and has strategized how we can work with and support our nonprofit partners to address these pressing issues.

Advocate for Impact,” a new e-newsletter for grantees and partners, is the latest in a series of steps FISA Foundation has taken in 2017 to respond to the changed political and social climate.

As a small foundation, it’s always been obvious to our board that our limited funds will never be enough to create the changes we seek. From the beginning, FISA has cultivated long-term relationships with many of our nonprofit partners and acted as convener and catalyst as well as grantmaker. We have learned that modest funds over a long period, in the hands of skilled and passionate advocates, can drive fundamental shifts in our region. While FISA’s Board has always supported advocacy, recognizing that it is not possible to shift deep inequities without changes in policy and public understanding of the issues, last year, we dramatically increased our advocacy focus; 66% of all new grants approved were for advocacy and systemic change.

We were also challenged to rethink some of our fundamental ways of doing business as a foundation. We needed to re-examine our own practices and to ensure we were utilizing every possible tool at our disposal to achieve greater impact with our limited financial resources.

While FISA has been intentional about building a board that is diverse and includes women with deep expertise and relevant personal experience (a third of our board are women of color and a third bring expertise in living with a disability), we have generally regarded our grantees as the true experts and have promoted them as the face and voice of our mission. In recent years, we have gradually become more public as a foundation, adding our voice to those of our grantees and partners in drawing public attention to important issues. It has become more urgent this year, and as executive director, I’ve begun authoring op-eds, blogs and letters to the editor, and have testified for the first time at a legislative hearing.

We knew that some of our grantees were powerful advocates, practiced in the basics of voter rights and registration; communicating with elected officials through legislative visits, town hall meetings, letter writing campaigns, legislative breakfasts, public hearings, and protests. But, outside of that group, we were concerned that many other nonprofits did not have the knowledge, tools or skills to engage in effective advocacy. Last spring, FISA surveyed our grantees and partners to learn more and to ask how we could help strengthen their efforts. We defined advocacy broadly, as a range of activities that can influence public policy, including voter registration and engagement, educating the public or elected officials about an issue, as well as grassroots and direct lobbying. We learned that the majority (72 percent) of those who responded believe that advocacy is a priority in advancing their missions; 84 percent already engage in some type of public education, advocacy or lobbying; and 66 percent plan to strengthen these efforts in the future. 

Two-thirds of our grantees also responded that resources to support advocacy are limited – they don’t have the time, budget or staffing to do as much as they would like to do. While we couldn’t promise more funding, a whopping 80 percent thought FISA could help them strengthen their advocacy efforts, and their suggestions included helping them better understand the laws, rules and best practices.

In response, FISA initiated “Advocate for Impact.” In this monthly newsletter, we provide easy to access resources that can be put to practical use. The first issue highlights resources to engage board members in conversation about advocacy.

In an engaged democracy, each of us has a role to play in speaking up for what we believe. FISA is doing its part, and we hope you are doing yours.  Please join our mailing list to receive future issues. And remember — October 10 is the last day to register to participate in the November 7, 2017 election.  If you’re not sure whether your registration is current, click here to double check or register online.

Kristy Trautmann is executive director of FISA Foundation, a charitable grantmaking foundation dedicated to building a culture of respect and improving the lives of women, girls and people with disabilities in southwest Pennsylvania.