A Model for Advocacy: How One Foundation’s Unconventional Investment is Shaping Health Policy
Senior Director of Policy,
The Colorado Health Foundation
Jake Williams, Executive Director, Healthier Colorado
The Colorado Health Foundation’s unprecedented journey to creating and endowing Healthier Colorado —a nationally unique 501(c)(4) organization—arose when the Foundation began its transition from a public charity to a private foundation in 2011. The foundation’s new report, Creating a Healthier Colorado, shares this journey.
Prior to the official tax status transition in 2016, the Foundation had a window of opportunity to think creatively about how to sustain—and even increase—the influence of Colorado’s health advocates. At this time, the Foundation’s staff reflected on how and where health advocacy had been successful in shaping policy in Colorado. Funders, such as the Foundation, and partners in the state had many collective strengths and victories to celebrate but many areas to improve upon.
When the Foundation conducted its own gap analysis of health advocacy in Colorado and similar states, its policy staff found three significant gaps that a potential 501(c)(4) organization might fill:
- Target: While health advocates were engaged on state-level issues governed from the state capitol, few resources were available to track or influence health policy made through local entities like county commissions, school boards, city councils, or county health departments.
- Focus area: There was little political advocacy focused on advancing health issues beyond the domain of health care and health insurance, such as school nutrition, youth physical education, or public recreation.
- Tactics: Few groups were using grassroots tactics for lobbying, such as those employed effectively by both sides of issues like gun regulation.
Through the gap analysis, Foundation staff identified the need to support more organizing at the grassroots level in order to amplify the voice of the people of Colorado in policy debates influencing their health.
Recognizing this opportunity, the Foundation pushed to be bold and creative with deploying its resources. This willingness to stretch beyond the conventional led the Foundation to form Healthier Colorado, a separate and independent 501(c)(4) political organization that was free to actively engage in direct lobbying with policymakers and free to organize and activate Coloradans to speak up about important health policy issues.
Healthier Colorado, established in 2013, is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to raising the voices of Coloradans in the public policy process to improve the health of Colorado residents and a mission to build grassroots support for health policy. This new political nonprofit began with $15 million in seed funding from the Foundation over the span of three years. Healthier Colorado dedicated this seed funding to creating an endowment of its own that would form a solid financial base for the organization to continue to operate for years to come.
To date, Healthier Colorado has had significant success. It has rallied Colorado residents in support of legislation allowing local farmers to sell nutritious crops to school food programs. It has partnered with a coalition to improve nutrition standards at the 2,000 licensed child care centers caring for 100,000 Colorado children a year. Most notably, it helped to secure a sugar-sweetened beverage tax in Boulder, Colorado.
Initially considered a high-risk approach to grantmaking, this innovative investment demonstrates a unique opportunity for funders to advance their missions through influencing public policy. The nimbleness and fearlessness in taking on powerful targets was exactly what the Foundation and its advocacy partners had hoped for in backing the formation of a new 501(c)(4). With an aggressive political advocate like Healthier Colorado in motion, the Foundation’s policy staff are convinced that the high-profile work of Healthier Colorado has already emboldened other groups to take grassroots political action in health.
The new report, Creating a Healthier Colorado, shares a detailed description of the Foundation’s journey to forming Healthier Colorado, including:
- the Foundation’s transition to private foundation tax status,
- the process behind forming a 501(c)(4) organization,
- the advocacy work of Healthier Colorado to date, and
- how health policy has since evolved in Colorado.
The story of how the Foundation leveraged resources to influence policy and amplify the voice of Coloradans on important issues affecting their health provides a model for other foundations. Access the Foundation’s white paper and read Healthier Colorado's companion report to learn about this unconventional approach, which was a risk worth taking.
Booth, Michael. “Creating a Healthier Colorado: The Colorado Health Foundation’s Bold Investment in a Policy Voice Our Health Deserves.” June 2017.