Foundations on the Hill 2015: Connecting and Collective Impact

March 26, 2015

Ann Saxton, Vice President

Last week I had the pleasure of attending Foundations on the Hill (FOTH) in Washington, D.C. with a number of our Philanthropy Northwest partners and almost 200 others in the philanthropy community from across the nation. Over three days we met with government agency officials and more than 20 members of Congress from across our six-state region to share the vital role our sector plays in supporting healthy and vibrant communities. For some, this was a first opportunity to meet and begin forming lasting relationships with elected officials and for others it was a chance to reconnect and show ongoing commitment to the mission, issues and communities we serve.

One of the trains for traveling between Senate buildings and the Capitol building; business cards of members of Congress; Philanthropy Northwest FOTH delegates walking underground to the office of U.S. Representative for Oregon's 2nd congressional district, Greg Walden

Cross-sector Collaboration (or, a Two-way Street)

While one of our collective goals for these meetings was to encourage support for tax policy that would allow us to expand our philanthropic work, we were also committed to offering ourselves as a resource for information on philanthropy — which remains a mystery to many in government, as well as sounding boards for proposals that could impact our sector and as partners back home. Members of Congress were particularly interested in the idea of convening and providing a safe place to share ideas. We look forward to developing and executing this concept with them further.

White House Office of Social Innovation roundtable in the Indian Treaty Room in the East Wing of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building

We received a more direct “ask” early in the week, when Philanthropy Northwest was honored to be the only regional philanthropic network invited to a roundtable for foundation leaders and senior White House officials to discuss how government and philanthropy can collaborate on place-based initiatives.

During this conversation, we were reminded that early in his career, President Obama was a community organizer in the South Side of Chicago, and that role remains close to his heart. David Wilkinson, recently appointed director of the White House's Office of Social Innovation, Shaun Donovan, director of the Office of Management and Budget and former secretary of Housing and Urban Development, and Michael Smith, special assistant to the President and senior director of cabinet affairs for My Brother's Keeper, among other White House staff present, confirmed the President’s commitment to federal place-based initiatives and the administration’s desire to work in concert with foundations in these communities. This was the first conversation of many, and we look forward to forging closer bonds with the Administration and working together to determine how best to serve our communities in place.

USDA Under Secretary of Rural Development Lisa Mensah, surrounded by Philanthropy Northwest delegates and staff

In a week of truly unique experiences, perhaps the biggest highlight was the private reception we hosted with USDA Under Secretary of Rural Development Lisa Mensah. It was our honor to host an intimate conversation between Ms. Mensah and Philanthropy Northwest members, during which she shared her personal and professional history as well as her current work. We were truly inspired by the story of her childhood in suburban Portland, Ore. and in her father’s native Ghana, to her professional journey from working as a banker before moving on to the Ford Foundation then the Aspen Institute, culminating in her nomination by President Obama for the position of Under Secretary of USDA Rural Development. In her role, Ms. Mensah leads three USDA agencies charged with improving the economic wellbeing of rural America: the Rural Housing Service, the Rural Utilities Service and the Rural Business-Cooperative Service. These agencies provide critical infrastructure investments including loans and grants for rural housing, broadband internet, utilities, conservation, renewable energy generation, local and regional food systems, community facilities and small business development in — all elements of great interest to Northwest philanthropists and our communities.

In addition to discussing ways government agencies and philanthropy can come together to execute place-based missions, we also joined our own Mission Investors Exchange and the Council of Development Finance Agencies for a one-day symposium to explore the potential for alignment between foundations and traditional economic development agencies. We discussed how foundations can make small investments in proven development finance programs and how we can leverage that support can to advance social, community and economic priorities. We are thrilled to see the conversation – and the practice – moving beyond grantmaking to include other financial instruments which will allow philanthropy to make a deeper, broader and more sustainable impact on the communities we serve, and we look forward to playing an integral role.

Our days on the Hill last week were interesting and often exciting. The spirit of camaraderie with our other Philanthropy Northwest colleagues and the shared interest in our commitment to philanthropy in place was pervasive and energizing. In addition to forging new relationships with our elected officials and agency staff, we returned home with new friendships with our fellow network members. I look forward to building on the foundation we formed in D.C. to forge better understanding between philanthropy and government, create strong pathways for sharing ideas and nurture relationships between government philanthropy and our network in particular. I am grateful to all the Philanthropy Northwest partners who made the trip and hope they found the experience as rewarding as I did – and I encourage those who were unable to attend this year to join us in 2016!