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Presenting a Unified Voice for Philanthropy in a Divided Congress

Friday, April 22, 2016

A delegation from Philanthropy Northwest delegation meets with Sen. WydenThere’s an old saying in public policy that if you aren’t at the table, you’re on the menu.  I thought about that saying a lot last week as I participated in the 2016 Foundations on the Hill event, which was hosted by the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers in partnership with the Council on Foundations. During #FOTH16, more than 160 philanthropy leaders from more than 30 states converged in Washington for two days to ensure that philanthropy is never on the menu. Despite all the divisiveness we hear about in Congress these days, philanthropy presented a united voice for the field and heard support from both sides of the aisle.

In hundreds of meetings, #FOTH16 participants met with their senators and representatives, and their key staffs, to share stories of how philanthropy’s co-investment and partnership with government has helped create jobs, improve student’s success in school, increase access to health care and much, much more to strengthen our states and districts. They talked about the need to maintain and increase opportunities to encourage charitable giving—now more than ever—to address the critical issues facing our communities today.

Another truism of policy work is that when you need something from your legislators, it is NOT the time to start developing relationships with them. On the Hill last week we heard that everyone is expecting Congress to take up tax reform in some form sooner rather than later. So in last week’s Hill visits, foundation leaders were proactive in talking about the importance of maintaining tax provisions like the charitable deduction, which is the biggest incentive for charitable giving that we have in our country today.

The South Carolina delegtaion of Southeastern Council of Foundations meets with Senator ScottIt was no coincidence that two bills to help grow philanthropy got introduced last week in time for Foundations on the Hill. In a bipartisan move, Senators John Thune (R-SD) and Ron Wyden (D-OR) introduced S. 2750, the Charities Helping Americans Regularly Throughout the Year (CHARiTY) Act. This bill contains several provisions that would increase charitable giving, including an expansion of the IRA charitable rollover to allow for distributions to donor advised funds (DAFs) and a simplification of the private foundation excise tax to a flat rate of 1%. On the House side, Representative George Holding (R-NC) introduced The Grow Philanthropy Act (HR 4907) to expand the IRA charitable rollover to DAFs. With the introduction of these two bills timed with #FOTH16, we had hundreds of foundation leaders at the ready to hit the Hill immediately to encourage support for them.

Here are a few other things we heard in our #FOTH16 meetings:

  • As demonstrated by the CHARiTY Act sponsors, there continues to be bipartisan support for philanthropy in the divided Congress. However, Democratic leadership in the House has some philosophical opposition to any legislation that does not pay for itself. So we have to do a better job of communicating to our legislators that although bills that encourage more charitable giving typically involve forgoing tax revenue, they more than pay for themselves in terms of more philanthropic support for our communities.
  • Some legislators expressed concerns about university endowments, so we have to do a better job of telling our stories about the value of endowed philanthropy (like this story of the Jessie Ball duPont Fund that was published recently in the Chronicle of Philanthropy).
  • Legislators continue to express an interest in seeing transparency in the philanthropic sector, so we must continue to be vigilant in being open about our work and our contributions to society.

A delegation from Florida Philanthropic Network meets with Representative Wasserman SchultzThe Forum’s members – regional philanthropy associations and networks – put in the bulk of the legwork to make the 2016 Foundations on the Hill a success. They organized their states’ delegations, set up their delegations’ meetings with legislators, developed materials about the value of philanthropy that were customized for states and districts, and much more. The Forum helped support their work by organizing briefing calls with state delegation captains, developing common messages for delegations to use, organizing logistics, arranging a White House briefing and more.

These efforts make a difference. For a number of years, Foundations on the Hill delegations have been urging legislators to make permanent the IRA charitable rollover, and last year we were successful in getting that accomplished—another show of bipartisan support for our issues despite the divisive atmosphere in DC.  The IRA charitable rollover is perhaps the second-biggest incentive for charitable giving right now, behind the charitable deduction, and it is now available to donors all the time with no periodic expirations as in the past. That’s a big deal.

You can read other perspectives about the 2016 Foundations on the Hill experience from the Forum’s delegation leaders at Forefront in Illinois and Philanthropy New York. You can also check out this Storify of #FOTH16 highlights.

As important as Foundations in the Hill is, it is just one part of a yearlong effort in the Forum Network to ensure a strong voice for philanthropy in Congress. The Forum will work with our regional association members throughout the year to help them stay connected with their senators and representatives, tell the stories of philanthropy’s value in improving people’s lives, and urge their legislators to support efforts to grow charitable giving in our country.

-          David Biemesderfer, President & CEO, Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers. Follow me: @dbiemesderfer

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