Tracing the Development of the State Fiscal Analysis Initiative
The Stanford Social Innovation Review has published an account of the origins and development of the State Priorities Partnership that, for most of its existence, was known as the State Fiscal Analysis Initiative (SFAI), in its Spring 2016 issue.
I thought the LAFF constituency might be interested in learning about the Initiative and its accomplishments, as writing the piece for the Review has provided me a chance to reflect on grant making as a process whose dynamics are mostly obscure to people who have not participated in foundation rites.
The core of the Initiative was to create organizations in the American states that would make their budgets and tax policies more transparent. The approach, broadly speaking, was already being executed to a high standard at the national level by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. The fairly simple idea, easily grasped, was to replicate in the states what the Center already was doing so successfully at the national level.
The execution of the idea, as I explain in the Review article, was more challenging, since at the time there were no organizations in the states doing, or even fully capable of doing, such work.
But over the last 20 years the Partnership has become a notable part of the policy landscape in more than 40 states and the District of Columbia. Its many moving parts are supported by eight national funders and hundreds of local funders and individual contributors. (A directory of state Partnership members is at www.statepriorities.org.)
In telling the story from my point of view as a grant maker—a requirement of contributors to the Review’s “Viewpoints” column—I was keenly aware that I was understating the grantees’ critical contributions to the design as well as the execution of the Initiative. The LAFF readership will recognize this as a cardinal sin of grant making, both because it radically simplifies and therefore distorts the reality, and because it is clumsy in terms of how the grant maker wishes to interact with people outside the foundation world. As grant makers we want to distribute credit, not claim it.
Another distortion results from perpetuating the view that the grant officer acts alone even within the world of philanthropy. Substantial grant initiatives are implicitly and necessarily collaborations between grant officers and the directors and senior staff members who help shape them and secure their authorization. This is obviously the case at a general level. At the very least, directors counsel on how to present ideas and written materials in ways that are consonant with the expectations of senior officers and trustees. In the case of the State Fiscal Analysis Initiative, many people made specific interventions that fundamentally shaped the project.
I joined the Ford Foundation in the summer of 1991 as a program officer in the Governance and Public Policy unit. Shep Forman was the director, continuing the work he had been doing as director of a larger unit that included the Foundation’s human rights and civil rights work. But he was also the newly appointed director of the Foundation’s International Affairs program. I had expected to be working with David Arnold, Shep’s deputy for the Governance work, but when I arrived in New York I found that he had gone off to India to oversee Governance programs there.
I experienced my first months remarkably free of guidance or supervision.
In the spring of the next year I was ready to talk to Shep about the Initiative. He was very positive, but he also thought that I had not reckoned with the cost of a project of the magnitude I had in mind. I realize now that I may have been ready to be a “grant maker” but had no experience with assembling resources beyond my own portfolio and little idea how to go about it.
Shep encouraged me to talk to Bob Curvin, the director of the Urban Poverty Program, to see if UPP might be interested in supporting the work. Bob was very positive as well; through the remainder of my 12-year tenure at Ford, UPP contributed half the Foundation funds that supported the 12 core state grantees, a substantial $300,000 per year.
Bob also pointed out that even with the pooling of resources from the two units we probably still didn’t have enough to fund the Initiative properly. He suggested that I reach out to other funders. Though I didn’t know other funders at that point, I began to meet with a new funder affinity group on income security. It was at a meeting of what soon became known as the Grantmakers’ Income Security Taskforce (GIST) that John Blyth of the C.S. Mott Foundation and James Hyman of the Annie E. Casey Foundation expressed interest in supporting the work. The involvement of these two foundations in the end permitted the Initiative to launch with those first 12 state groups. The Ford, Mott and Casey foundations were the only national funders for the first six years or so.
Other colleagues who made specific contributions to the effort include Jan Jaffe, who became acting director of the Governance program after that first year, and then June Zeitlin and Michael Edwards, who as directors supported the Initiative during subsequent stages. The first expansion of SFAI occurred when Michael Seltzer, my colleague in Governance, agreed to share the cost of adding state nonprofit organizations in three states as lead SFAI partners. Mark Elliott was my silent partner in signing off on RGAs that committed Urban Poverty funds to the Initiative every two years.
If one adds administrative assistants, grant managers, program assistants and legal staff who pored over every grant document in search of unartful language, the list of people who contributed to the development of the State Fiscal Analysis Initiative at the Foundation would fill an atrium.
Michael Lipsky is a Distinguished Senior Fellow with Demos, a research and policy center.