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The Forum’s 2019 Foundations on the Hill Proved, Once Again, That Speaking Out Matters

Monday, April 15, 2019

Philanthropy leaders have been coming together for Foundations on the Hill each year for the past 16 years to meet with our elected leaders in Congress, and I’ve participated in most of those annual events. United Philanthropy Forum’s 2019 Foundations on the Hill (FOTH) was similar to those past events in many ways. As in past years, for example, FOTH 2019 clearly demonstrated the power of philanthropy to speak out with a strong, collective voice over several days on Capitol Hill. Something that was different this year was the number of immediate bipartisan responses we received from congressional leaders to sign on to our legislation as a direct result of their meetings with FOTH delegations. I’m not sure how that bodes for our policy efforts for the rest of 2019, but let’s take it as a positive sign.

More than 240 philanthropy leaders participated in FOTH 2019. Led by United Philanthropy Forum and the Forum’s member philanthropy-serving organizations (PSOs), this year’s FOTH delegations represented 32 states and attended 280 meetings with leaders on Capitol Hill to discuss policy issues of importance to philanthropy. With 2019 seeing the Democrats taking leadership in the House of Representatives and the addition of nine new senators and 89 new representatives in Congress, this year’s FOTH was particularly critical for making early connections with freshman lawmakers and new committee leadership so they understand our issues and view the members of our network as valued resources and partners.

A significant portion of the 2019 FOTH policy platform focused on philanthropy’s response to the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA), which made several changes that negatively affected foundations and nonprofits. FOTH delegations focused on two key issues: the changes to the unrelated business income tax (UBIT) for nonprofits and the doubling of the standard deduction, which limits access to the charitable deduction and will lead to overall drops in giving. Focusing on the two main tax-writing committees in Congress, FOTH delegations met with 18 of the 28 members of the Senate Finance Committee and 24 of the 42 members of the House Ways & Means Committee to discuss these issues.

While “self-defense” issues and tax policy are important to the field, FOTH 2019 covered a much broader set of topics that impact the work of PSOs and foundations. The upcoming census is one such topic that many PSOs included in their conversations with members of Congress and their staffs. Recognizing the immense importance of ensuring a fair and accurate census count, PSOs asked Congress to sufficiently fund the Census Bureau and voiced their opposition to the inclusion of a citizenship question in the census.

In addition to the policy conversations, FOTH 2019 focused on conveying the value of philanthropy to members of Congress. We wanted to make sure they understood that philanthropy is not just another special interest group, but rather a sector dedicated to creating thriving communities that benefit everyone. Delegations underscored that philanthropy offers more than grantmaking and can take on many different roles: providing data and research, convening diverse people and organizations in a community, facilitating partnerships, pooling resources and leveraging federal investments. To further highlight philanthropy’s impact, many delegations provided customized fact sheets that summarized the local work philanthropy has led, the number of constituents employed by the sector, and the number of philanthropy dollars invested in the members’ states and districts.

Forum members reported some immediate successes from FOTH 2019. For example, both Maine Senators signed on to the Senate LIFT bill to repeal the unrelated business income tax (UBIT) on nonprofits’ fringe benefits (one of the TCJA provisions that have hurt our sector); New York Representatives Chris Collins (R-NY) and Brian Higgins (D-NY) agreed to support the House version of the LIFT bill; and Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar (D-MN) signed on to both bills supporting a universal charitable deduction. We also heard reports of some congressional representatives agreeing to look into securing sufficient appropriations for the census.

The Forum managed all aspects of the 2019 Foundations on the Hill. The Forum coordinated all logistics; conducted five FOTH preparation webinars and several other planning calls with delegation leaders and members; provided background materials and talking points; and planned and administered on-site FOTH programming.

Preceding Foundations on the Hill was the Forum’s 2019 PolicyWorks Institute, where 74 PSO staff and their member policy volunteer leaders spent two days exploring key policy issues and building skills for their policy work. The record attendance at this year’s Institute was 23% higher than for the 2018 Institute, revealing a growing interest in the field for deeper engagement on policy and advocacy work. We offered sessions to help Forum members strengthen their policy and advocacy skills and to share their policy successes and challenges with their PSO colleagues.

I'd like to thank all of the Forum members who led FOTH delegations this year and who participated, along with many of our Forum colleagues, as presenters for the PolicyWorks Institute. We are also deeply appreciative to U.S. Trust Bank of America Corporation for being a Presenting Sponsor for the 2019 Foundations on the Hill and PolicyWorks Institute, The Nord Family Foundation for being a Supporting Sponsor of the 2019 PolicyWorks Institute and the Alliance for Charitable Reform, a project of The Philanthropy Roundtable, for being the Leadership Summit Breakfast Partner.

Both the Forum’s Foundations on the Hill and PolicyWorks Institute are key components of our broader yearlong strategy to build the capacity of our PSO members to engage effectively in policy and advocacy work, and to help PSOs build the policy capacity of their philanthropy members. The Forum leads and facilitates conversations and learning opportunities throughout the year through our public policy peer community via webinars, calls, policy newsletters, email alerts, and in-person workshops.

The Forum and our members will continue to meet with members of Congress throughout 2019 to address policies that affect the philanthropy sector as well as to increase lawmakers’ understanding of our work. By amplifying our stories, sharing our successes, and coordinating on policy, we will continue to identify issues of importance to lawmakers and foundations alike and advance favorable policies that strengthen the charitable sector. We will continue to work with our members and our network to speak out strongly to lawmakers on issues that matter to our field. As this year’s Foundations on the Hill demonstrated clearly, speaking out DOES matter.

David Biemesderfer
President & CEO, United Philanthropy Forum
Follow me @dbiemesderfer