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:
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.