First FOTH

My badge at Foundations on the Hill last week sported a blue ribbon that read “First-time Attendee.” Ah, a newbie, fresh face, initiate. Welcome to Washington.

My two-day Capitol adventure got underway Wednesday morning with a series of panels and briefings hosted by the Alliance for Charitable Reform. From the “labyrinth of transparency” to L3Cs and PILOTs (payments in lieu of taxes), speakers led us through an overview of issues facing the foundation field.

The highlight of the morning may have been the “March madness” panel: four Congressional staffers, two from each side of the aisle and from each chamber, providing an insider’s look at the current machinations of government as they relate, sometimes, to philanthropy. All four individuals pretty much agreed that charitable deductions benefit society and a charitable IRA rollover is a good idea, but they were also of the shared opinion that moving anything forward in Congress this year was unlikely.

One staffer described the situation on Capitol Hill as a version of the movie “Groundhog Day”-the same laws reviewed every year, sometimes extended, sometimes not (the term “extenders” echoed throughout the two days of meetings). Despite the fact that one of the House staffers referred to the Senate as “the funeral parlor” (where bills go to die), a certain collegiality seemed to reign among this eloquent foursome. For our benefit? Who knows.

Maine Senator Olympia Snowe might be partially responsible for the pall that seemed to hang over the Capitol. In announcing her decision to step down at the end of this term, she cited the gridlock on the Hill as her primary reason for leaving. Many a foundation colleague shared with the Maine contingent a sadness at Snowe’s departure, which made us feel special, yes, but not especially cheerful.    

With help from the Council on Foundations, Team Maine-Janet Henry, president of the Maine Philanthropy Center; Lissa Widoff, executive director of the Robert and Patricia Switzer Foundation; and me, representing the Maine Community Foundation-prepared a game plan for meetings with members of its delegation Wednesday afternoon. Henry would set the table to discuss, for example, the role of philanthropy in Maine and issues we’re facing. Widoff would highlight the work of Switzer, a family foundation (created from the sale of the Day-Glo paint company) focused on environmental leadership, and explain why the current excise tax rule is onerous and punitive. And I would share stories of giving in Maine customized to the individual Senator and Congress person while making the pitch for extending and expanding the charitable IRA rollover.

We were two-for-four in actual face-to-faces: Senator Snowe was on the floor paying tribute to Barbara Mikulski, the longest-serving woman in Congress, and Senator Collins was grilling Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano at a hearing on the department’s 2013 budget. (We watched the senator ask some tough questions from a live feed in her office.)

Whether meeting with an actual representative or a staffer, we were listened to and our concerns were noted. I told Congressman Michaud about the Maine Community Foundation’s Tibor and Anna Doby Veteran Support Fund and highlighted Aroostook County philanthropy with Mark LeDuc, senior counsel to Senator Collins (who is from Caribou, near the rooftop of Maine). We also practiced flattery, praising Pingree’s work on environmental issues and Senator Snowe’s championing of LIHEAP, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

On Thursday morning, we heard from Seth Harris, deputy secretary, U.S. Department of Labor; Suzanne Immerman, director, strategic partnerships, Department of Education; and Rocco Landesman, NEA chairman. All three highlighted exciting and promising intersections of philanthropy, public policy, and social good.

Later that morning, Laura Tomasko, Council on Foundations’ manager of public-philanthropic partnerships, accompanied us to a briefing with Jennifer Snow, policy adviser in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Ms. Snow provided an excellent overview of the Affordable Care Act and responded to our Maine-specific questions.

What were the takeaways from these visits and briefings? On several occasions, we were told how important it was for the foundation field to educate Congress and our state legislators about philanthropy. We even had officials suggest that we could take a leading role in moving America back toward the center, to use our convening power and our financial resources to “push the middle ground.”

Although it was a whirlwind, Foundations on the Hill offered a bounty of special moments. As we walked from one building to another late Thursday morning, for example, we came across a rally marking the 40th anniversary of the Equal Rights Amendment, which has just been reintroduced in Congress. History in the making?

Before flying home to Maine late Thursday night, a couple of us visited the new Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., National Memorial. The cherry blossoms were in full bloom around the impressive granite monument. Reading the quotations from King’s writings inscribed on a wall, I was struck by one statement in particular: “Make a career of humanity.” I thought of the origin of the word “philanthropy,” which means “love of humanity,” and realized that that was the gist of our message to our leaders in Washington: Put aside your differences and help us further quality of life and enhance the common good across America and the world.

P.S. Wednesday night at the Mayflower Hotel, I happened to notice a Dartmouth banner on a table outside one of the meeting halls. Being an alum, I went to investigate and was told the college’s president, Jim Yong Kim, was speaking to Washington alumni. I wish I had stuck around to say hello to the person who, we learned on Thursday, may be the next president of the World Bank!

Carl Little is director of communications and marketing at the Maine Community Foundation.

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