Communicating with Congress

July 25, 2014

by David Landers, deputy director

How easy is it to contact your Congressional representatives? What about contacting a Congressperson outside of your district who is voting on an issue you care about? Because our public policy work at Philanthropy Northwest aims to support better relationships between the philanthropic and policy sectors, we conducted an experiment to answer those questions at an individual level.   

Last week, I notified Philanthropy Northwest members about an upcoming vote in the House of Representatives. H.R. 4197 would simplify the private foundation excise tax, make permanent the IRA Charitable Rollover and other measures encouraging philanthropy. (Thank you to everyone who contacted their representatives and peers; the next step is a Senate vote possibly this fall!)

I live in Seattle: ZIP code 98121. When I attempted to reach out to elected officials within our six states, I quickly learned that legislators' practices for accepting and responding to incoming communication can vary widely. For example:

  • On the public comment forms of many Congressional websites, you are quickly dismissed if your ZIP code does not fall within the member’s district. There are some notable exceptions in which the legislators welcomed input from people outside of their districts.
  • Several forms require that you code your comments according to specific, tightly defined categories. Since many of today’s tough challenges cut across multiple issues, it is sometimes difficult to pick just one from a list of 15 choices.
  • Several legislators emailed me back a few days after the vote explaining their decision and thanking us for our comment. Nice communication loop!

I appreciate the values behind and technical reasons for how legislators manage their inbound communication. It's a tough challenge*. My experiences, however, underscored the value of the direct relationships that many of our members have established with their elected officials –- whether at the national, state or local level. Your ZIP code gives you access that Philanthropy Northwest does not have. 

Since most of our members do not have the time to regularly navigate Congress' challenging systems for citizen input, we can provide information and other technical assistance about how to best contact your elected officials. As we continue to evolve our public policy work, you will also see us offering you more information about and opportunities to connect with federal, regional and state level agencies, such as the Department of Education and Corporation for National and Community Service, making significant grants and mission-related investments in our region. A number of agencies have dedicated staff and philanthropic liaisons that enable public-private partnerships and funding collaboratives, and we don’t want to miss opportunities. We just sent a survey out to foundation leaders about their foundation’s degree of involvement in public policy –- separate from making grants -- and their feedback will help to inform our direction. Stay tuned for results from that survey.

*For more comprehensive analysis about communication with public policy officials, check out these two reports:

Photo Credit: theqspeaks