Demystifying D.C.: What We Learned in the Other Washington

May 3, 2016

Every spring, philanthropic organizations from across the country converge on our nation's capital for Foundations on the Hill, a 48-hour opportunity to educate Congress and encourage national policymakers to see philanthropy as a close partners in their communities — as advocates, both for policies important to our representatives and for their constituents.

These delegations are led by regional philanthropy associations, including Philanthropy Northwest, Philanthropy New York, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers, Council of Michigan Foundations and Florida Philanthropic Network. Given that our members are the farthest from Washington, D.C., Philanthropy Northwest spends months scheduling and preparing for this annual opportunity to engage in conversations with national policymakers about issues important to our communities.  

This year, Philanthropy Northwest's FOTH delegation included staff and board members from the Arctic Slope Community Foundation, Casey Family Programs, M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, Northwest Health Foundation, Rasmuson Foundation and Dennis & Phyllis Washington Foundation. We met with U.S. senators and congressmen from five states, across party lines: Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK), Rep. Don Young (R-AK), Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT), Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT), Rep. Ryan Zinke (R-MT), Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR), Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR), Rep. Greg Walden (R-OR), Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA). Our delegation had an exclusive conversation with Doug O'Brien, White House senior policy advisor for rural affairs, and Raina Thiele, associate director of intergovernmental affairs and public engagement. Our friends at Casey Family Programs also arranged meetings for us with the U.S. House Committee on Ways and Means and with members of the U.S. House Financial Services Committee

Members of our delegation before meeting with Sen. Steve Daines' chief of staff.

Philanthropy Northwest has led FOTH delegations for more than a decade. As a first-time FOTH participant, I was struck by how crucial it is for philanthropy to be part of our democratic process, as government agencies and grantmakers are both working towards a common goal: healthy and strong communities. Members of our delegation agreed.

Terry Stokesbary, Program Director, M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust 

“The overall experience was a significant learning that proved to be very encouraging. Three things stand out. First, the conference offered an opportunity to share the experience with peers and learn a bit more about each other’s work and the issues at hand from their perspective. Second, I left our days together with a greater appreciation of the congressional staff and the day to day operations of each office. Hopefully, I learned ways that we might improve our communication with each office. Third, I enjoyed each of the conference’s sessions to be enjoyable and thought-provoking; each was a learning experience.” 

Sharon Thompson, Executive Director, Arctic Slope Community Foundation 

“I was able to gain further knowledge of how important it is to convey to the Congressional delegates both from out state as well as others, the importance of our work and how it affects their constituents. I felt very welcomed and thank the Philanthropy Northwest delegation for allowing me to tag along and learn.“ 

Bill Thorndike, Jr., Board Member, Northwest Health Foundation 

“Our connections across the Philanthropy Northwest region allowed us to connect foundation leaders from our six states with key public policy advisors in Congress. Of special interest was the meeting that our friends from the Casey Family Programs was able to arrange with key staff from the Senate Finance and House Ways & Means Committees dealing with social issues. This unique opportunity of hearing from senior staff crossing the political landscape and Congressional chambers was very reinforcing of the desire to work towards shared interests around improving the lives of all Americans. They, too, are looking for measurable results.”

Mike Halligan, Executive Director, Dennis & Phyllis Washington Foundation 

“Foundations on the Hill is very useful because it is an opportunity to receive up to the minute briefings on issues that impact the sector, build relationships with other funders, strengthen relationships with members of Congress and their staff and present a unified message about the importance of the philanthropic and nonprofit sector.”

#FOTH16 Slideshow

Looking Ahead

We are already looking ahead to people and programs we can bring together for FOTH 2017, but our members don’t have to wait until next spring to work with our elected leaders. As a trusted convener, any foundation can get involved by bringing local funders and representatives together to speak on issues that matter to our communities, and engage in advocacy work in powerful ways. Our friends at Rasmuson Foundation have launched Plan4Alaska to address the state's fiscal crisis; Campion Foundation is a leading partner in the Stand for Your Mission campaign to "unleash the full potential of the nonprofit sector to create positive impact by engaging board leaders more directly in the advocacy work of their organizations."

Philanthropists can also show support for legislation, following guidelines and examples from resources like Bolder Advocacy's Philanthropy Advocacy Playbook: Leveraging Your Dollars. Two bills intended to increase charitable giving are now under consideration: The Grow Philanthropy Act (H.R. 4907) and Charities Helping Americans Regularly Throughout the Year Act (S. 2750), also known as the C.H.A.R.I.T.Y. Act.

  • H.R.4907, introduced by Rep. George Holding (R-NC), seeks to “amend the Internal Revenue Code of 1986 to allow tax-free distribution from individual retirement plans to donor-advised funds."
  • S.2750, introduced by Sen. John Thune (R-SD) and our own Sen. Ron Wyden (OR-D), seeks to “amend the Internal Revenue Code to extend and modify certain charitable tax provisions.”

Foundation leaders can sign letters of support for H.R.4907, S.2750 and other legislation that impacts our sector and our stakeholders.

One of the main things we keep hearing from our national representatives is that foundations should share the work they are doing to advocate and benefit our communities. Some may say foundations are the best-kept secret in our communities and public policy process. Let’s change that!

Philanthropy Northwest invites you to submit your public policy comments and ideas to