When Lew Feldstein became CEO of the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation, there was little doubt in his mind that public policy would be a central part of the foundation’s work. A handful of board members shared that desire, others disagreed, and many were concerned about whether or not Feldstein, an avowed liberal Democrat, could work effectively with an overwhelmingly Republican state government.
“Those days weren’t easy,” Feldstein admitted, “because I was constantly challenged by some who were just uncomfortable with the idea of working to influence government policy and who thought that it would compromise our independence and integrity.” That led to some tension, until Feldstein and the foundation became deeply involved in an issue that resonated with people across the political spectrum: creating a public-private statewide program to double the amount of protected land across the state.
The foundation provided seed money for a five-year campaign whose goal was to conserve 100,000 acres across the state. The project was the brainchild of the state’s largest and leading environmental group, the Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests (SPNHF), which had built a broad following over a 90-year history as a moderate and effective organization. “At a time when New Hampshire was the seventh or eighth fastest-growing state in the country, and when a lot of people felt the state was being overrun with growth,” Feldstein recalled, the Trust for New Hampshire Land became a vehicle for creating common ground — quite literally — in all parts and sectors of the state. “The trust enabled people to donate land or put easements on their land. Private money paid for negotiations with landowners and surveying and things like that. Public money then paid for the easements. The private sector raised over $3 million, and the public sector put in $70 million or $80 million. In a five-year period, we nearly doubled the amount of land that had been protected in New Hampshire [outside the White Mountain National Forest] in the first 200 years of the state’s history. And we doubled it not just in big parcels, but by trying to make sure that every single town in the state got some land protected — which enabled everybody to own it.”
In addition to money, the foundation contributed the board’s connections and the CEO’s time and political know-how to the effort. Feldstein testified before the state legislature, chaired the task force that would establish the initial criteria for which land could be saved, and regularly met with then governor John Sununu. The result was a public and private partnership that succeeded in protecting land worth $83.3 million — one of the most ambitious undertakings in the name of conservation in New Hampshire.
The effort also turned the tide in the foundation’s ability to get involved in policy. “Everybody cheered” the success of the land trust, said Feldstein, including people who had previously contended the foundation should stay out of the public realm. The lesson, he said, is this: “The issues you choose to get involved with matter.” Another factor that helped a lot was the degree to which the community foundation was “rooted and embedded in all parts of the state. The land-trust work would have been more difficult for a private foundation to do.”
For a more detailed story about how the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation came to be involved in public policy, read “One Foundation’s Story: The NH Charitable Foundation Makes a Significant Impact with Public Policy,” by Elizabeth Banwell. It is available at www.grantcraft.org/ advocacyguide, under the heading “More on This Subject.”