Further insight from NGO Panel

By Isabel Yoder, Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Certificate student 

On Wednesday morning, we changed things up by hearing from a panel of non-governmental organization leaders. The panel was headed by Ann Mills, the Executive Director at Agua Fund, Michael Fernandez, the founding director at AAAS Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues (AAAS EPI Center), and Ferd Hoefner, who consults with multiple organizations on behalf of federal farm policy issues. After hearing from mostly government-affiliated leaders earlier on in the week, it was fascinating getting some insight on what work is getting done to advance agricultural policy goals and initiatives from the outside. 

The panel kicked off Ann Mills, whose work at Agua Fund helps to fund mission-based work that protects the environment, enhances democracy, and supports disadvantaged older Americans -age with dignity, among other efforts. The funding from Agua Fund spans across organizations like the National Sustainable Ag Coalition, the Alliance for Shenandoah Valley, and other nonprofits. The organization has been involved in relationship-building at state, national, and local levels for over four decades. Prior to her role at Agua Fund, Ann had extensive experience working within the government, from working for the state of California to overseeing the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) at USDA. In her career, Ann has spent time looking at agricultural systems and at areas where value needed to be added, which was a steep task at times when 5 or more agencies had to coordinate on specific policy initiatives. Ann spoke of an instance when states were experiencing extreme drought and needed a federal approach to leverage their resources with local, state, and tribal governments to address short-term critical needs while also developing long-term solutions. Part of this effort included USDA educating other federal agencies of the importance of agriculture representatives having a seat at the table in the response to this drought. It was interesting hearing about the challenges and importance of coordination efforts across various levels of government to achieve a goal through a federal initiative. When looking at Ann’s work, I can imagine that her experience having to coordinate complex systems to attain a goal comes in handy when making funding decisions. Ann continually spoke of the importance of building relationships that endure peaks and valleys politically in the long-run. 

This emphasis led to a question from an ASU student, Stu, around the possibility of “convening fatigue.” He asked, how do you coordinate peoples’ desire to convene with what can be somewhat tiring conversations? Ann acknowledged the difficulty of rallying people to come up with a unified position, and offered that when reaching solutions, you shouldn’t just get together with people for the sake of getting together. Rather, it’s important to make it clear why you’re convening and what your goal is. She also discussed the value of having an undercurrent of relationship-building constantly running, as this leads to informal “hallway connections” that can lend to further connections and opportunities to come together. 

We then heard from Michael Fernandez, who founded and now leads the AAAS Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues (AAAS EPI Center). The AAAS is an international nonprofit and the largest scientific society in the world. Their primary mission is to deliver clear, concise, and actionable scientific evidence to decision and policymakers, as science makes decision-making easier and it fits (and should fit) into all policy considerations. Their work involves taking evidence and presenting it in interesting ways, often looking at relevant and current policy debates and conducting scientific studies around these issues. Michael shared with us how the organization cannot advocate for specific policy decisions, but sometimes the science and evidence they gather weighs clearly in one direction. In this work, taking a multidisciplinary and multisectoral approach to exploring these issues scientifically is vital. The AAAS EPI Center primarily aims its research initiatives at informing state and local decision makers. 

After picking up on some of the political challenges in Michael’s work, I asked him to talk a little bit more about how his organization takes a bipartisan effort in bringing scientific evidence to policy and decision makers, and gets past political agendas of leaders and encourages them to pay attention to specific scientific evidence. In his response, Michael spoke of a few instances in which politicians overlooked the Center’s research and made a poor decision in the name of protecting their own politics. He pointed to the importance of engaging local media to show up in political spaces and get politicians to care and closely consider the true facts of what’s going on in the cases they’re having a say in. 

Ferd Hoefner was the last speaker in the panel, a celebrity presence after we got to learn so much from his video lessons in our Tools and Tactics coursework last fall. Ferd worked for many years for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC), and is currently working as a farm policy advocate and consultant on behalf of various communities. Having worked on nine farm bill campaigns over the years, and in his 34 years at NSAC, Ferd has gotten a close look at how policy pushes agricultural initiatives, and thus has distinct insight into his current work. Speaking to us about his time working through the complexities of budget reconciliation, Ferd discussed his tactics of getting involved in panels and conversations in which he could represent his knowledge on farm and agriculture based policy matters. In response to a question from the audience, Ferd discussed the importance of cultivating the media to keep relevant information in the news. By relevant, Ferd referred to information relevant to the policy agenda one is currently working on on behalf of their organization or advocacy for a specific community. When given the opportunity to call or talk with a reporter, Ferd always takes it. Along with this, he sends content to the national Ag press from more local media outlets so that these priorities and stories can be picked up and followed on a larger scale. 

The panel took one more question from the crowd, which asked about the relationship between NGO’s and funding organizations when collaborating on the mission of a set project. Ferd spoke about how funding down the line is more often project-focused, and the other panel members chimed in saying that general support grants are ideal because NGOs can choose to use them how they need to. Foundations often follow the same trends in where they want to put their money based on what is “in favor” at the time. Funders have a varying level of involvement with the organization their money is going to; depending on the structure of the foundation itself, whether it be a traditional foundation, individual donor, or small philanthropy group. 

In this concluding question, the panel spoke to the reckoning that the philanthropic space is currently undergoing, with insights being necessarily turned towards recolonization of wealth, support for BIPOC organizations, and work centered on equity and justice. This reckoning could see the shifting of power away from grantmakers and putting it directly into the hands of nonprofit, etc. leaders who have been putting in this work for years. This can happen through simplifying the grant application process, ensuring that money gets to the hands of nonprofit staff members right away, and looking at other ways to support people and organizations that are currently getting things done on the ground. Looking towards this type of collaboration and increased efficiency left us more informed about all of the players that need to have their voice heard in these processes. Throughout this session, I enjoyed hearing about what work is getting done outside of the government, and the different types of organizations in place to help direct this vital work. 

This blog is part of a series from the July 2021 Washington D.C. Immersive program of the Food Policy and Sustainability Leadership Graduate Certificate Program. Students met with federal food and agriculture focused officials at USDA, the White House and other agencies, Congressional leadership, industry leaders and other important policy stakeholders.