Foundations on the Hill: A Sense of Urgency

March 27, 2017

Philanthropy Northwest's recent delegation to Foundations on the Hill 2017 included Mike Halligan, who shared his insights with us as a nine-time participant in this annual visit with national policymakers in Washington, D.C.

The atmosphere on the Hill is dramatically different than years past — not just because the Republicans control both houses of Congress and the White House, but also because of the emerging differences of opinion between Congressional Republican leadership, rank-and-file Republicans and the president with respect to their election mandate.

President Trump is moving with all deliberate speed to make good on campaign promises he made on healthcare, tax reform, immigration, budget reductions for all non-defense agencies and departments, regulatory reform, job creation and infrastructure. But as illustrated by the failure of the repeal-and-replace of the Affordable Care Act, the White House incorrectly assumed that the sheer force of Trump's personality would bring Republican representatives and senators (who represent widely diverse areas of the country) together at the negotiating table. When the GOP moderates and conservatives refused to compromise, the process for resolving their differences imploded. As the administration turns to other major issues — especially budget cuts and tax reform — the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors would be wise to recognize the divides separating the moderate and conservative Republicans in Congress, and between the president and the Republican party.

More than ever, philanthropy’s role as a trusted convener and facilitator can and should play a significant role in helping public policymakers find responsible solutions that are in the best interests of the general public.

Montana Coffee during FOTH17 (left to right): Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT); Mike Halligan, Dennis & Phyllis Washington Foundation; Gloris Estrella, Philanthropy Northwest; Moses Lee and Steve Moore, M.J. Murdock Trust; and Sen. Steve Daines (R-MT).

Philanthropy Sector Issues on the Table

During this year's Foundation on the Hill, organized by the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers and the Council on Foundations, more than 250 participants from all over the country convened to discuss sector-wide talking points for our meetings with policymakers. Congressional and White House staff offered insights on how to be effective advocates in these meetings; speakers from the Alliance for Charitable Reform and philanthropy panelists reviewed three sector issues on the table:

  • Tax Reform. Charitable tax incentives have great importance for the philanthropy and nonprofit sectors, especially in lean budget years when grants and donations are needed more than ever for our communities. In the context of anticipated tax reform, we pressed congressional members and staff to strengthen and broaden the availability of the charitable deduction to a greater number of taxpayers. We also support a bipartisan effort to amend the current 1%-2% excise tax on private foundations, adopt a flat excise tax and support to expand the IRA Charitable Rollover to donor-advised funds.
  • U.S. Census. We support full funding of the U.S. Census Bureau to ensure a fair and accurate Census count in 2020, including representation of our undeserved communities.
  • Johnson Amendment. We support the continued enforcement of the Johnson Amendment, the law that prohibits charitable organizations from endorsing, opposing or contributing to political candidates and engaging in partisan campaign activities. Legislation is currently being proposed, with executive branch support, to repeal or alter the Johnson Amendment to allow 501(c)(3) charitable organizations to endorse or oppose candidates for political office, support or oppose political issues, serve as repositories of political donations for or against a candidate or issue and allow individuals and corporations to deduct contributions made to nonprofit organizations for political purposes. Philanthropy Northwest's board has joined the Council on Foundations, the National Nonprofit Association and many other national and regional associations, foundations and nonprofit organizations in opposing the repeal of the Johnson Amendment.

Confronting the Challenges Ahead

I would like to thank Philanthropy Northwest's team for doing an excellent job planning and organizing our meetings with U.S. House and Senate members and staff, including providing us with informative Trends in Northwest Giving materials so we could easily explain philanthropy’s impact on a state-by-state basis and throughout our region. Equally as important, Philanthropy Northwest and Casey Family Programs set up special meetings for our delegation with staff from the House Ways and Means Committee, Senate Finance Committee and the Indian Affairs Committee that served as critical first steps in relationship-building that will pay dividends as policymakers move forward to confront the challenges ahead.

Finally, in contrast to my eight previous experiences as a FOTH delegate, I detected a palpable sense of urgency by policymakers and staff to make tangible progress toward implementing their “mandate," however that may eventually be defined. It was clear from my time on the Hill that dramatic policy changes are on the horizon — and that philanthropy can and should play a professional, objective role in educating our representatives and their constituents on policy issues that impact the livability and sustainability of our communities in the Northwest. Most importantly, we should use our role as a trusted convener to bring all voices to the table to facilitate the resolution of problems that seem beyond our reach at this time.

Mike Halligan is executive director of the Dennis & Phyllis Washington Foundation, based in Missoula, Montana. He is also a Philanthropy Northwest board member.