Nimble Champions for Children

On a balmy Monday afternoon in May, Denise Mayotte sat in her office anticipating good news. “It’s a big day here in Minnesota, because our legislature is due to wrap up. We’ve been doing so much work around early childhood issues,” she says of The Sheltering Arms Foundation. “There are some differences of opinion with our governor, who wants to do universal pre-K, but we believe low-income families need to be the first to get resources. So we’re all waiting with bated breath to see what the results will be.”

The Sheltering Arms Foundation focuses on advocacy for vulnerable children in Minnesota, and Denise uses her leadership as executive director to support policies that, in turn, support those children. She funds direct service work and engages with grantees, which she enjoys, and she also digs into legislation, translating constituents’ experiences into broader policymaking. It’s the on-the-ground, grassroots tangibility that she loves.

“We’ve helped to ensure $27 million a year in the Minnesota state budget for scholarships for low-income kids to go to quality early childhood programs.”

“We’re hoping this year there’ll be an extra $30 million a year. What’s needed is $150 million a year, so we’ve got a ways to go,” she acknowledges. “But we feel we’ve been part of changing the discussion around what kids need and the opportunities at the statewide level to fund it.”

The work requires ninja-like agility, particularly since processes can be tedious and the pace unpredictable. It helps that Sheltering Arms is a small, public foundation and doesn’t have layers of bureaucracy to tunnel through when it’s time to make decisions. (Legally, public foundations are freer to engage in advocacy than their private foundation counterparts, which can be more limited by stricter laws.) Denise credits her supportive board—composed of Episcopal women with hearts for children—for allowing a structure that keeps the foundation responsive and nimble.

“We have an advocacy committee that reviews our legislative agenda, and we’ve put aside money for a fund so we can support this kind of work without going through our regular grants process. We’ve also gotten solid opinions from our lawyers on the extent to which we can be involved in this work, taking the H election, meaning we can declare our lobbying and advocacy work, so that’s all above board.”

The foundation is also part of MinneMinds, a 100-member coalition that champions early childhood advocacy statewide. Sheltering Arms, which started as an orphanage more than 130 years ago and has been a foundation for more than three decades, helped to launch MinneMinds via the Start Early Funders Coalition. Denise is a co-chair of Start Early and plays a leadership role in MinneMinds as well.

“We’ve built structural supports within the organization so we can be a player in advocacy.”

“We call it our ‘collective impact work.’ Within the coalition, we’ve had to create ways that private funders concerned about this level of advocacy can protect themselves, making it clear that their funding might only go to education or things they’re legally able to do. For us, the United Way, or others constituted as public foundations or organizations, we can go further. All of us have the assurances that we can be more outspoken and not endanger our foundations by doing so.” A full-time staff person for Start Early lessens Denise’s burden, but she estimates that she spends about 20% of her time on coalition-related activity.

Change doesn’t necessarily happen when people sit around a conference room table or congregate in an office to swap ideas. Those conversations may generate the blueprints of change, but action—the visible, concrete work—actualizes them. Denise is all about making plans happen, and she advises other foundation leaders to adopt her “just do it” mantra.

“For any foundation that’s looking at getting involved in policy, you want to look internally and develop some structures like a policy or advocacy committee to review the legislative agenda that you’re involved with,” she advises. “Think about doing some grantmaking to organizations that are directly involved in advocacy. Most of those are 501(c)(3)s, and there’s no need to change your structure. You can fund those organizations and their policy work, and it makes a huge difference.”

“It’s just remarkable to me the difference that our voice can make.”