Grappling With Key Questions and Blazing New Trails

Earlier this month, I joined the Council on Foundations after following a rather unique road in government relations, the law, and public policy. I’ve worked in all three sectors: public, private, and now independent. From my perspective, this new opportunity—this leap of faith that I’ve taken—is tailor made for what I do well, which is identifying opportunities, addressing issues, devising strategies, and solving problems in creative ways.

At the opening plenary session of this week’s Family Philanthropy Conference, David Peter Stroh challenged us to join him on a journey into systems thinking. During the discussion, I engaged in my own mental gymnastics to see how this applies to our work in public policy and government relations. It occurred to me that our involvement in the current national debates in Washington over revenue, spending emergencies, and longer term tax policy requires us to do our own version of systems thinking where we are challenged to address current emergencies while still being mindful of the precedent that’s being set—in David’s words, the intended or unintended consequences.

Following in David’s rather large footsteps, yesterday I moderated the conference’s second plenary session: “Tax Reform: What’s at Play and What’s at Stake?” Early on in the discussion one of the panelists—Matt Dolan of the Federal Policy Group—reminded us of several important dates we must all keep in mind:

  • March 27, when the current funding for the federal government expires
  • April 15, the deadline for reporting next year’s budget
  • May 18, when we hit our new debt ceiling

Clearly we can predict at least some of the issues that lie ahead in the 113th Congress—tax reform, for example—and that, based on the impending deadlines I just mentioned, there will be a huge push for revenue. In this push, the itemized deduction could very well be back on the table as it was during the “fiscal cliff” deliberations. I can also predict that we will be following these issues closely, engaged in the process and keeping you informed of any new developments.

But what about the next issues we’re faced with down the line? How will we determine where the Council should participate? Is it as an educator, a convener, a collaborator, a lobbying force—or all of the above? And what is best for the health, well-being, growth, and future of philanthropic organizations? While my crystal ball can’t predict how it will all turn out, I can tell you this: We’ll be seeking your input as we grapple with these and other key questions and get ready to blaze some exciting new trails.

And that leads me back to yesterday’s panel, where Matt and the other wonderful speakers—John Tyler of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, Gloria Johnson-Cusack of Leadership 18, Kristin Hull of the Nia Community Foundation, and Mike Halligan of the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation—explored some of the current issues that could have a direct and potentially damaging impact on the charitable community, as well as the best opportunities to reach favorable outcomes.

For me, one of the highlights of the discussion was when Mike read thank you notes from elementary school students who participated in a production of The Princess and the Pea at the Missoula (Montana) Children’s Theatre, an organization the Washington Foundation has supported since 1990. This, he reminded us, tells the story of why philanthropy is important to America. There weren’t many dry eyes in the house when he was through.

As Mike did so movingly yesterday, please share your stories on this blog or by using mygivingstory on Twitter. There’s no better way to make sure our policymakers understand the impactful work our sector is doing every day. I also encourage you to send an e-mail to to tell us about the issues that are important to you and let us know how we can serve you better.

Sue Santa is senior vice president for public policy and legal affairs at the Council on Foundations.

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