Reflections from Foundations on the Hill

Thursday, March 24, 2011

By Nur Ibrahim
Executive Coordinator, Philanthropy New York

Philanthropy New York recently went to Washington, D.C. with a delegation of members to participate in Foundations on the Hill. This annual event, co-sponsored by the Council on Foundations and the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, is an opportunity for foundations to inform Congressional offices of the impact and concerns of the philanthropic sector. In addition to several specific legislative issues on the Council’s agenda, we focused on enhancing Congress’ awareness of the economic and social benefits foundations provide. There were 3 kinds of activities that will enhance our sector’s ability to effectively inform members of Congress in the future:

Because we had participated in Foundations on the Hill for several years, we knew that most of our meetings would be Philanthropy 101 sessions—in large part because Congressional staff turnover is very high. Many of those working on Capitol Hill are simply unaware of the many facets of the philanthropic sector; the differences between foundations and charities; the populations that are served by the sector; and its economic impact. We had the chance to provide some key messages as we educated staffers about our sector. For example, nearly 17 percent of New York State’s total jobs are based in the nonprofit sector, and in 2009 25 percent of nonprofits added jobs to the economy during a year when job growth was tough to find. By going to FOTH, we have the chance to make sure that staffers know who to call when considering legislation that could impact philanthropy; we also have a chance to let the staffers know that we can help connect them to our members—who can provide substantive expertise in multiple areas.

Not your typical icebreaker, but amusing nevertheless: our first meeting was interrupted by the high-pitched cry of children. Apparently a coalition of 57 youth charities were on Capitol Hill lobbying against the $61 billion proposed budgetary cuts to programs like Head Start. One member of our delegation introduced herself to the coalition as “here to advocate on behalf of the philanthropic sector so that our ability to fund programs like Head Start is not compromised by the budget.” The urgency and messaging may be different, but there may be opportunities to combine our efforts with others in order to represent the whole charitable sector, providing Congressional staff with a more thorough understanding of how we work together.

At one point, nearly every lawmaker we spoke to said the same thing: I meet with 7-10 people a day, and I remember four (and four seemed optimistic). Congressional staffers are saturated with meeting requests and even though they may claim to remember you from last year, I’d refresh their memory. So while Foundations on the Hill is a great opportunity to meet staff members and introduce our organization, it’s really just step one. The sector must have consistent advocates among the sea of voices in order for the importance of our issues to be understood and considered.

As we soon learned, follow-up is key. We were advised that Senator Schumer would be reintroducing an excise tax bill and then encouraged to call and email the staff member we met with from Senator Gillibrand’s office in order to encourage her to act as a co-sponsor. Later that day, after placing a few phone calls, we learned that Senator Gillibrand would not only co-sponsor the bill but also join the Philanthropy Caucus. Is this solely the result of our interactions? Absolutely not—but the window is now there for us to create additional opportunities for education about our sector. This experience highlights the continued need for our capacity as a sector to reinforce and communicate our importance, purpose, and priorities more than just once a year.

Nur Ibrahim serves as the Executive Coordinator at Philanthropy New York. She supports the office of the President and provides key support to the Board of Directors, the Executive Committee, and the Committee on Directors. In this role, Nur is also responsible for supporting the development of collaborative policy work. Prior to joining Philanthropy New York, Nur worked as the Manager of Research, Policy, and Development at Common Cents, a youth program teaching children the value of philanthropy. She received her B.F.A. in Dramatic Writing from New York University in 2004, and recently received her Master’s degree in Non-Profit Management from Milano The New School for Management and Urban Policy.

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