Many observers view 2012 as a year when little will get done legislatively, as the candidates and political parties jockey for position in advance of the presidential election. Contrary to that opinion, this year is actually a huge opportunity for interested parties-like foundations-to build relationships with key policymakers and their staffs in advance of the many reforms expected to be pursued by the 113th Congress.
The philanthropic sector should view this year as an open invitation to get more engaged with their elected representatives. I can tell you from personal experience that fears of the dreaded “L word” (lobbying) are overblown. Just because a foundation meets with a staffer about its work does not make it lobbying. Staffers want to hear about the work that’s being done in the sector and why it’s important to their districts, states, or specific policy areas. Such information makes them better at their jobs.
From my observations as a senior Senate aide, more foundations need to step up when it comes to communicating with members of Congress. The Council on Foundations does great work educating Congress on issues of concern to the entire sector, but collective and individual efforts are needed in the months ahead if philanthropy is to be a viable, political force in 2013. Unified efforts-like Foundations on the Hill (FOTH)-make a strong impression, but important details often only emerge if each foundation has later, follow-up conversations with members and staff. Without these one-on-one meetings, many senior staffers might know about the foundation excise tax or the IRA rollover, but they wouldn’t really have a good grasp of what the philanthropic sector does and why it’s so important to our nation’s well-being.
Let me put it this way: I spent 12 years in the Senate as a top adviser to three different senators. I can’t recall a single meeting during that time when an individual foundation came in to talk to me about its specific programmatic work and why my bosses should care about it.
To be fair, some senior foundation staff did come to the Hill, and I looked forward to the annual FOTH visits from the New York foundations. But those visits were more focused on issues of concern to the whole sector, like the excise tax. Senior Hill staff-particularly those with substantive committee responsibility-want to hear more. They want to know what’s happening on the ground in local communities, and want to hear more about the public policy work that the major foundations undertake.
These relationships can bear fruit in many ways. As Hill staffers learn more and build relationships with program staff, they learn more about innovations in public policy and that knowledge can inform future policy changes. But good communication can also forestall certain reforms that might hurt the sector as a whole, because more policymakers will want to stand up for the sector. Foundations invest too much time and money in improving their communities to see these efforts dashed by uninformed policy decisions that affect them at the federal and state levels.
So as 2012 begins, here are some ideas on how foundations can further engage Washington and the Congress without jeopardizing their tax status:
- Encourage your president or senior program staff to build relationships with elected officials that encourage an open exchange of information about philanthropy locally and nationally.
- Offer your expertise on philanthropic impacts in your community, and make sure that nonpartisan research gets to the appropriate staff. Elected officials often need such facts for floor statements and other research they are preparing in advance of hearings and other events.
- Express concern when policies may inadvertently affect philanthropy locally and nationally, and remind your representatives of the potential impacts on the vital services provided by the philanthropy sector. (The tax laws allow direct lobbying in a self-defense situation, or when a proposed policy change would have a direct impact on your foundation’s work. Check with your in-house or outside counsel before weighing in.)
- Open a Washington office, or hire a Washington-based advocacy or government relations firm to build relationships on the Hill and educate staffers about your work-without lobbying. If opening an office or hiring permanent staff is too expensive, retain someone in Washington to help you at a lower expense (and lower profile).
- Invite your member of Congress to come see the work that your foundation is doing in the community, and consider working with the officials’ staffs to invite local news media to attend. (Members love local press attention, especially in an election year.)
- Write op-eds in your local paper, or papers you know that your elected officials’ staffs read.
- Attend Foundations on the Hill in Washington, D.C., March 21-22. This annual event, sponsored by the Council and the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, is the primary way that many foundations engage with their federal representatives in the nation’s capital.
With philanthropy playing such a vital-and ever-increasing-role in public policy development and service delivery, more direct engagement will help many foundations achieve their core missions and improve the standing of the sector as a whole.
M. Jeff Hamond is a Vice President at Van Scoyoc Associates.