Public Policy: Another Way to Serve your Community

Why should my community foundation care about public policy?

Community foundations have a unique philanthropic voice in to bring to policymakers in Washington D.C. You are fully integrated into the lifeblood of your communities, and are intimately familiar with the urgent needs of those you serve. This grassroots experience is invaluable, and it is essential that lawmakers hear your perspective so that the decisions they make reflect the needs of real communities across America.

Advocacy work also has direct benefits for your foundation. It can raise awareness of your mission, attract favorable media attention, and mobilize and reinvigorate your members, volunteers, donors, and board members.

And, now is a perfect time to make your voice heard. Critical decisions on tax reform and government spending are being made this fall that could impact how your organization operates. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill are making behind-the-scenes determinations on how to reform the tax code, and a budget conference committee is charged with making key choices on government spending by December 13th.

What type of advocacy are we allowed to do?

As public charities, community foundations may engage in a limited amount of direct lobbying, which is broadly defined as communication with a legislator or legislative employees that reflects a view about specific legislation. However, community foundations are always free to contact or meet with legislators for networking purposes or to educate them about the charitable and philanthropic sector in their districts. The Council’s website includes several legal resources that lay out the advocacy rules, including one specifically on the advocacy rules for community foundations.

How should we engage with our elected officials?

We encourage you to begin by reaching out to your elected officials to network or educate them about philanthropy and charitable activity in your area. Establish a rapport, and keep your city council members, mayors, governors, senators, and representatives regularly informed about the work you do and what is happening on the ground in your communities. When you communicate with your elected officials for these purposes, we urge you to consider the following:

· Be clear about why you are contacting them (i.e., to let them know about your foundation’s upcoming 10-year anniversary or a new program you started in the community);

· Come with nonpartisan facts and figures about your foundation and your work in the community;

· Consult with other community foundations or public charities in your area to make sure you bring a unified voice from the sector, when possible;

· Offer to serve as a resource for the legislator and his or her staff on charitable issues in the future.

Check out the Council’s publication, A Foundation’s Guide to Advocacy, to learn more about the most effective ways to communicate with elected officials.

The Council can help!

The Council urges you to share your experiences, successes, and frustrations with us so that we can continue to support you on Capitol Hill. In fact, we will be meeting with lawmakers on Wednesday, November 20th to advocate for charitable giving incentives as part of the Charitable Giving Coalition’s Capitol Hill fly-in event. We would love for you to join us! If you cannot attend in person but would like to participate, we are putting together a toolkit of media outreach opportunities that we will share with you when it is ready.

Katherine LaBeau is a Public Policy Analyst with the Council on Foundations.

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