When my class (The Philanthropy Workshop West ) arrives, a light snow dusts the ground and U.S. President #44, Barack Obama, has just been sworn in for a second term. As we progress through a week of presentations, spring thaws early and soft rains fall, cleansing our cynical capital and washing away our prejudices against politics. Late in the evening, late in the week when no one is watching and we’re tired of propriety, we find ourselves falling into bed with the idea of advocacy. We just want to advance our causes . . . Is that so wrong?
What happens if politics and philanthropy get into bed together? Personally, I’d never tried it. The last picket I’d pumped—back in college in Ohio—said “Bread for the World,” and the notion of feeding the hungry didn’t seem too harshly partisan. Later, I inadvertently faced polarization head-on when, as a divinity student in global religions at Harvard during the Persian Gulf War, I prayed with my Iraqi friend Afaf for her soldier son and my soldier brother, on opposite sides of Desert Storm. We just wanted peace and unity for all.
Politics sounds like division to me, particularly in 2013 with moderates dropping out of Congress and citizens living in increasingly party-segregated zones across My Country ‘Tis of Thee. Politics seems calculated and disingenuous. Philanthropy, on the other hand, bubbles up from love of humanity. It seems emotional: compassion igniting action that causes connection. I’ve spent a career avoiding the den of Washington, D.C. … Until now.
Last year, I missed the Washington, D.C. trip. While my cohorts learned to lobby their representatives, I flew into Delhi, India and proceeded north into the hinterlands of Uttar Pradesh to interview ultra-poor rural women working for a new social-enterprise dairy cooperative . These mothers in saris who never held a steady job shepherded goats and cows, tripling their family’s income while working from home. While my class learned to finance candidates’ campaigns and power-map Congressional committee chairs for their causes, I stopped for chai and crackers in the dusty courtyard of Saraswati’s one-room hut. The stories got pretty interesting when a teenager opened up about intergenerational issues and the village women  got a chance to gossip about the real pros and cons of their jobs.
Frankly, I wasn’t sorry to miss D.C. I learned about cow and goat farming and how to design a value chain from livestock feed-fertilization to bulk-milk chillers. We spent long days gathering stories, photographs, and video from north India.
Next, I flew to Kolkata to write for another partner who provides adult education and healthcare for microentrepreneurs . Finally, a few of us lingered in Rajasthan, gaping at the slanting rays of sunset at the Taj Mahal and tracking Bengal tigers in Ranthambore. I snuffled through a nasty head cold and slept far too few hours, returning home three weeks later exhausted … Yet blissfully happy.
Staunchly anti-political, I’ve heard that many other philanthropists share my aversion to what TPW-West director Glen Galaich laughingly refers to as the “football-team dynamics” of partisan politics. However, of my own volition, in January-February 2013, I find myself here after all, to pick up this essential piece of education. I hover in the optimism of possibility. A session on media easily has my attention, while a workshop on policymaker advocacy makes my eyes glaze over. I look across the bed and consider this strange fellow I’ve found here.
“You need to take a risk if you want to make a difference,” says Joel Rubin of Ploughshares . CNN’s Bill Schneider , who’s covered politics for 47 years and now conducts research for Third Way, tells us, “I’ve seen a lot of changes over the years, and we’ve just now entered an era of a New America” of inclusion. Hmm, I want to help usher that in. According to political advisor Justin Buell , we wield more weight than D.C. insiders: “When you are not paid to say something, your message is more powerful than a paid lobbyist,” he says.
Our small site-visit group clicks down long linoleum hallways at the Department of State, where outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addresses her staff upstairs while in a crowded office downstairs, we hear about her Global Partnerships Initiative  on public/private partnerships. The hope at the outset of a new term begins to make us giddy in this city.
Later, a network friend and I happen to be standing at the foot of the Capitol building at twilight when we notice the white light click on in the cupola: That means Congress is in session. Inside at that very moment, Gabby Giffords  makes her plea to the Senate for gun control. “You must act,” she implores them.
As the week progresses, it’s hard to ignore the reality of power possible through politics. Having just seen $6 billion spent on the 2012 presidential elections, we wonder how else those funds could be spent to advance our causes. Hearing that $1 spent on advocacy can leverage $110 in outcomes, we scratch our heads and wonder which representatives back home might take a meeting with our grantee partners.
Our group may trek home with new notions about how to advance education, human rights, conservation, arts, and media with a tool that’s closer to our reach than we imagined: “Policy,” Mike Breen of the Truman National Security Project  (a nonparitsan group for preservations of peace and climate by veterans) told us, “is about the relationships we have with one another.” We are all in the business of relationships.
Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright  takes us on a narrative tour of the world, which is “a mess” from Syria to Pakistan, Israel to Egypt, Mali to Iraq. Somehow, despite disbelief in the United Nations and insider action, she fervently endorses “not militarizing democracy, but simply offering it” through leadership and capacity building around the world achieved through public-private partnerships.
Turns out, the currency of advocacy is comprised of more than campaign cash: We all advocate with every donation, grant, and investment we make as individuals, families, and foundations. We promote causes with our time as advisors and volunteers. For me as a nonprofit storyteller, every word  about a program or person points a spotlight of support on unsung heroes, around whom I want the world to rally. There’s nothing new about this courtship: I’ve been in love all along, and through various tactics, so have you. We may come away from D.C. more focused on the romance of politics and philanthropy, and maybe a little better equipped to stoke the fires of passion that will breed social justice, and soon.
Suzanne Skees is director and board chair for the Skees Family Foundation, a member of the Council on Foundations. This blog first appeared on the Skees Family Foundation blog .