Lasting change and systemic improvements rarely occur by happenstance. Achieving intentional change can take many years of hard work and focus - much like the carefully tended vineyards of Walla Walla. In this post, Rasmuson Foundation External Affairs Manager Jordan Marshall shares what he learned at the recent Philanthropy Northwest annual membership meeting.

The vineyards of Va Piano in Walla Walla.

Visits to the vineyards of Walla Walla, WA, were among the optional field trips during this year’s Philanthropy Northwest annual membership meeting, Oct. 1-3. It made sense. The region is undergoing a vintners’ renaissance of sorts with grapes having played a pivotal role in redefining the economic landscape of the community.

The off-site excursions served dual purpose: first, as idyllic but practical settings for getting to know the community and some of its people; and second, the neat rows of ripened grapes and aged oaken casks were an apt metaphor for the careful cultivation and long-term planning required for philanthropic social investments to bear fruit.

Lasting change – whether in the form of grizzled old vine trunks or long-sought systemic improvements  – rarely occurs by happenstance. Achieving intentional change can take many years of hard work and focus.

Taking the long view was a recurring theme of conference’s public policy track, which included a workshop and several policy and tax sessions. I came to Walla Walla intending to meet with other foundations that engage in policy work, reflect on ways public policy might advance mission, learn about tools and resources available to help with this work, and discuss examples of foundations engaging in policy work.

The sessions drove home the practical reality that policy work can take much longer than expected. “Erase expectations of instant gratification,” cautioned workshop panelist Sarah Stachowiak of Organizational Research Services, for example. “There are differences between programmatic and policy outcomes. Policy change takes time.”

Then there was the session devoted to best practices in outcomes-based community impact grantmaking, policy advocacy, and social investing. Cynthia Renfro of Marguerite Casey Foundation explained that policy and systems change are among her foundation’s strategies to empower low-income families. Her board, she said, understands their work will take time, and they’re in it for the long haul. “We track progress against various indicators and share feedback with our partners on an annual basis,” she said. “Celebrate wins along the way, but keep [a long-term] context.”

Planning ahead has its benefits, but there comes a time to harvest. And so it was on the last day of the conference. In stark contrast to the change-can-be-slow rhetoric of the previous two days, LaVerne Woods of Davis Wright Tremaine and consultant Pat Read presented on the looming fiscal cliff, observing in the “Tax Reform and Philanthropy” session that the sector is extremely likely to be swept up in comprehensive tax reform. The take-away from this session: The time is now to contact elected officials and speak up on behalf of philanthropy and its benefits to society.

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For additional observations about the goings-on in Walla Walla, please see a series of blog postings by PNW Montana/Wyoming E-bulletin Correspondent Caitlin Copple:

And from PNW Communications Manager Mandi Moshay: