CNJG Public Policy Fellow: I didn’t know what I didn’t know

July 9, 2015

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I have had the pleasure over the last eight months to work as the Public Policy Fellow for the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers, a nonprofit membership association serving New Jersey’s philanthropic sector.

Stephanie Holcomb at Lean In Advocacy workshop
Stephanie Holcomb, 2015 CNJG Public Policy Fellow

As promised in my job interview, I observed and participated in the intersection of policy and philanthropy. Given my previous experience in philanthropy, and the current pursuit of my Masters in Public Policy, this proved to be a truly invaluable experience.

I attended class on Wednesday to discuss what makes a group of citizens rally around a piece of legislation and how it is placed on the policy agenda, then arrived to CNJG’s office on Thursday to see members of countless regional associations, nonprofits, corporations, and foundations come together to discuss issues that mattered to them.

When I began my fellowship, the America Gives More Act was uniting the sector. Prior to this experience, I had no idea how many pieces there were to the policy puzzle. This understanding that policy takes place in the office, at the coffee shop, on the phone with colleagues, in blog posts, and just about everywhere else, seems like something I should have known before going to school for policy. But even with my experience in corporate philanthropy, multiple nonprofits, and government offices, I never really saw it. Luckily, this key issue, and my whole fellowship experience, provided me the opportunity to see the many sides of a debate beyond the halls of Congress.

I feel grateful that my first step into the policy world was with the Council. One highlight was Foundations on the Hill where I met many Congressional staff members and my own Representative. These visits provide an opportunity to further build relationships between foundations in the state and those legislating on our behalf, and continue education on the issues that matter most to the sector. I now feel confident navigating the tunnels between Cannon and Rayburn buildings, and I understand why experienced staff don’t wear high heels.

Most of all, I applied what I learned between high school and graduate courses to confirm that politics is about so much more than arguing legislators and the dramatic signing of a bill. Before any of that actually happens – it takes a village to shine the light on issues and fight to get them on the agenda. Over the last eight months, it became very clear that there is no village better suited to model this collective action than the philanthropic sector.

The intersection of policy and philanthropy warrants more than a passing discussion, as they are not simply two things that collide from time to time when major issues arise. Policy within philanthropy demands constant consideration, even from those who think their role has nothing to do with policy.

Everything we in the sector do involves policy in some way. That realization is only growing. I am happy to now be a new resident of this intersection, as I know I join a very qualified, welcoming village.

Upon finishing my fellowship, I joked with the staff of the Council that I didn’t know what I didn’t know — I had no idea how much was happening behind the curtain. For this new insight I will be forever thankful for my time at the Council, and I look forward to continue sharing this experience and shining a light on the incredible work taking place.

Stephanie Holcomb served as the Public Policy Fellow at the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers from November 2014 to June 2015. She is currently completing her Master of Public Policy at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, Rutgers University.