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Policy Work at Nonprofits and Not-for-Profits
Sarah Hutcheon Mancoll, Outgoing SPSSI Policy Director
This is my last Forward column for SPSSI, as I will be leaving SPSSI on August 31, 2023 to pursue a position in a congressional office. These past 7+ years at SPSSI have been wonderful. I’ve gotten to work with so many mission-driven people on staff and within the leadership and membership who are committed to the same value of using research to improve human wellbeing and realize a more socially just society. My last Forward column is based on a presentation I gave at APA 2023 on policy work within the nonprofit/not-for-profit space. Note: If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, check out the SPSSI-led cross-APA divisional “Fostering Policy-Relevant Psychological Research” webinar and toolkit series: www.spssi.org/CODAPARpolicyseries. The next webinar in this series will be held on Friday, September 15, 2023 from 12-1 pm ET (9-10 am PT). You can find previously recorded webinars from this series at: www.youtube.com/spssi.
While policymaking often happens within government, policymaking is shaped by many actors outside of government, especially within the nonprofit/not-for-profit sector. As the Policy Director at SPSSI, I’ve had the privilege of working with many psychologists over the years who are active in using their research, skills, and expertise to inform policy at the local, state, national, and international levels. Because my own work tends to focus on U.S. federal policy, I’m going to focus in this column on organizations and coalitions that work mainly at the national level in the U.S. That said, you can find psychologists working at the intersection of research and policy in the nonprofit/not-for-profit space at every level of governance.
Within the large and diverse nonprofit/not-for-profit space, there are many opportunities for psychologists and other social scientists to become engaged in policy work, either as a full-time career or as an extension of their career in academia, practice, or private industry. The kinds of organizations I’m talking about include, but are not limited to: think tanks, research and consultation firms, foundations, advocacy groups and coalitions, and professional membership associations.
At professional membership organizations like SPSSI and APA, there are many opportunities for policy work, not only as a full-time staff member but also as a regular member. On the staff side, for example, one former SPSSI Marshall Fellow worked as a Project Director at the Center for Scientific Evidence in Public Issues at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS, where he led nationally-recognized policy projects ranging from election security to criminal justice reform. On the membership side, there are many ways to get involved in policy work. Since I work at SPSSI, I’ll talk about some of the policy activities that our members have been engaged in over the last year or two.
As SPSSI members well know, SPSSI is the kind of organization that attracts policy hungry members—people who are deeply committed to applying their research, skills, and expertise to the problems of the world around them. So, through different areas of our programming, we try to offer our members opportunities to grow their policy know-how. Last year, for example, we hosted a one-day policy preconference in San Juan on Psychology and Decoloniality, bringing in speakers from different local NGOs and universities to engage attendees in discussion around issues at the intersection of research and policy in Puerto Rico.
SPSSI members also engage in policy work by working with SPSSI to craft public statements. I regularly work with SPSSI members, either on their own or in small groups, to draft public statements in response to major events, or in response to federal agency requests for information. This year alone, SPSSI has issued a number of public statements, including statements on the importance of academic freedom, a statement in response to the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, a statement on racial equality in the context of law enforcement, and a statement on climate injustice. All of our statements are rooted in the research, using psychological evidence to support SPSSI’s policy recommendations.
The last example I’ll give of SPSSI’s policy work comes from this past June, when SPSSI held an advocacy day on protecting the lives and rights of transgender and gender diverse youth. SPSSI hosts an annual advocacy day not only because it aligns with our values as a social justice-minded scientific society, but also because it provides a valuable training ground for our members—they can get out there and learn firsthand how to speak with policymakers.
Pivoting now, I’ll talk about policy work at another “kind” of organization: research and consultation firms and think tanks. For psychologists looking to conduct policy-relevant research full-time, there are a number of not-for-profit, nonpartisan social science research organizations that do this kind of work, including Child Trends and American Institutes for Research. Nonpartisan social science research organizations in the private sector also do this kind of work, such as Mathematica. One can also find psychologists conducting policy-relevant research at a variety of think tanks, be they left-leaning, right-leaning, or nonpartisan. I’ve known psychologists working on a range of timely social issues at a variety of think tanks, including RAND, Brookings, the Center for American Progress, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the Pew Research Center, and the Urban Institute. The research that these organizations conduct is funded through foundations and governments contracts, cooperative agreements, and grants (among other sources), and is often structured to directly address policy questions.
Foundations are also an important nonprofit actor in the policy sphere. Since foundations fund quite a bit of social issue policy research, the psychologists and other social scientists who staff these organizations—organizations like the W.T. Grant Foundation, the Foundation for Child Development, the Gates Foundation, and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation—can play a major role in shaping research agendas. Just as one sees psychologists and other social scientists within the federal government drafting RFPs, organizing the proposal review process, and managing grantees, one sees psychologists and other social scientists within foundations doing similar kinds of work.
For those psychologists who are looking for a shorter-term, non-full-time commitment in the nonprofit/not-for-profit sector, a wonderful way to get involved in policy work is through the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (also known as the National Academies). The National Academies is a congressionally chartered organization that serves as the collective scientific national academy of the United States. The Academy can be called upon by any department of the Government to investigate, examine, experiment, and report upon any subject of science. However, it doesn’t receive any direct appropriations from the government; all of its revenue comes from grants and contracts from federal agencies and private sources, including foundations, companies, and private donations.
The National Academies has engaged psychologists through a number of its policy-focused activities, which include workshops and symposia, forums and roundtables, standing committees, and expert meetings. To give you a sense of the breadth of issues they’re currently working on, the National Academies recently held a public information gathering session on understanding and addressing misinformation about science. They also recently released a new consensus report on federal policy to advance racial, ethnic, and tribal health equity; and called for public feedback on improving the health and wellbeing of children and youth through healthcare system transformation.
The last type of nonprofit organization I’ll talk about in this column is advocacy groups and coalitions. These groups and coalitions come in many forms, and cover the spectrum of issue areas. Some of these organizations are rooted in research work, and rely on psychologists and other social scientists to carry out the kinds of social science research that helps propel their advocacy work forward. For example, one former SPSSI Taylor Fellow is now a Policy Research Manager at Race Forward, an applied research center that works to build collective community power and transform institutions. Psychologists also have non-research focused roles at issue-focused nonprofits. One former SPSSI Marshall Fellow is now a Senior National Organizer at the National Center for Transgender Equality, where they’ve been applying their education and training in community psychology, and their policy expertise on health disparities, to advocating for the rights of transgender and gender diverse people.
In the advocacy space, there are also a wealth of policy-focused coalitions and consortiums that engage psychologists, including—for example—the National Prevention Science Coalition, the AAAS Science and Human Rights Coalition, the Federation of Associations in Behavioral and Brain Sciences, the Coalition for National Science Funding, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Coalition, and the Friends of NIH Behavioral and Social Sciences Research. I’ve been involved with these coalitions and consortiums as a staff member of SPSSI; many psychologists and other social scientists have been involved with these groups as individual members or as representatives of other societies or as representatives of their universities or other institutions. Coalitions and consortiums play a major role in federal policymaking because they bring the voices and power of many aligned organizations and individuals together to create change, and they’ve been a valuable tool to the science community for decades.
In sum, I want to emphasize the importance of all of these nonprofits/not-for-profits—or what we would call intermediary organizations—in helping to connect research to policy. Each type of organization has its own role to play, and psychologists are critical to the work of these organizations. If you’re a psychologist looking to become engaged in policy work, there are many opportunities both inside government and outside government, as a full-time career or as an extension of your ongoing career.
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