While many state governments were thrown into a tailspin by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, nonprofits and think tanks across the U.S. sprang into action. So when the State Policy Network released its annual Bob Williams Awards for Outstanding Policy Achievement, organizations that helped Americans get through the first months of the crisis topped the list.
The Philanthropy Roundtable’s vice president of strategy and innovation, Debi Ghate, spoke with leaders from three of the 2020 Bob Williams Awards winners: the Commonwealth Foundation, Center of the American Experiment, and Yankee Institute for Public Policy. Here’s how each group was able to influence policy change:
The Commonwealth Foundation took home the “Biggest Win for Freedom” award for its Justice Reinvestment Act 2.0. The criminal justice reform initiative aimed at getting Pennsylvania to spend its funds more efficiently. “State prison is not always the right place for someone who has committed an offense,” explains President Charles Mitchell, president of the organization, “and the amount of time we keep them there isn’t always the right amount of time.”
The group relied on bipartisan support to cut down on waste and bring criminal justice reform to Pennsylvania, which has the highest incarceration rate in the Northeast. The reforms aim at boosting safety as well as cutting down cost. Mitchell recalls cases where those in prison had to linger a month or so longer than necessary because of bad computer systems. “If it sounds too good to be true that we could be more safe and spend less money,” he says, “those are the kinds of things we’re fixing.” Thanks to donors from both the right and the left, he adds, “This isn’t just a policy victory. It’s a philanthropy victory.”
The Center of the American Experiment won “Best Issue Campaign” for “Back 2 Work Minnesota.” In order to keep state lockdowns during the pandemic from crippling the economy, the campaign pressured local officials to open the state safely. Through billboards, op-eds, and other forms of communication, the center’s initiative caused the governor to relax the state shutdown order. President John Hinderaker says the group’s effort sparked 52,000 emails that were sent to the governor and legislators.
The campaign was made possible by local supporters. “Everything we do,” Hinderaker explains, “we owe to our donors. We wouldn’t exist without the philanthropically minded people—almost all of them in Minnesota…it’s overwhelmingly individual Minnesotans who support our work.”
The Yankee Institute for Public Policy garnered “Biggest Home State Win” for spurring tax and licensing reform in Connecticut. President Carol Liebau says the group presented the governor with reforms that had to do with “easing regulations to get people back to work, providing relief for hurting businesses, and enabling the creation of a task force to get Connecticut’s economy reopened.” The institute proposed policy solutions to lessen the impact of the pandemic—such as suspending certain taxes for small businesses and waiving occupational licensing—which the governor adopted in late March, days after they were first suggested. The group also pushed the governor to create a “reopening” task force, which he did. And the institute even offered an online COVID-19 resource for those living in Connecticut.
None of this could have been accomplished without philanthropy. “The message I wanted to convey to our partners is: This award is really theirs because it’s really from their partnership that our work has been possible,” Liebau says. “I just feel an enormous sense of gratitude.”
To learn more about the recipients of the 2020 Bob Williams Awards, watch all three videos here.