Unless they get completely snowed out, expect hundreds of foundation executives and program officers to be walking the halls of Congress this week. It is Foundations on the Hill week, or in brief, Philanthropy Week, in which institutional philanthropy makes its case to senators, representatives, and their staff about what’s on the legislative and regulatory minds of grantmakers. You can predict some of the foundations’ core messages: concerns about limits or floors on the charitable deduction, support for flattening and reducing the foundation excise tax, qualms about potential limitations on the value of deductions of real property and closely-held business interests. But debates about “inside baseball” elements of the tax reform approaches of Dave Camp and Max Baucus only go so far with the American public.
Most Americans and, perhaps, most members of Congress want to know what foundations are doing now and in the future for social betterment, for community improvement, for reducing inequalities in our society, and for making our sometimes-fragile democracy work better. We’ll bet that some congressional staffers are as interested in those big picture issues as they are in debating how much charitable giving might decline due to revisions in the definition and composition of Adjusted Gross Income (AGI). Therefore, NPQ asked a number of people to weigh in on what they think—or what they hope—foundations might really be talking about in the corridors of House or Senate office buildings.
For Philanthropy Week, we’ll run one or two challenging op-eds from people around the nation every day, plus additional newswires from NPQ’s collaborative journalists on foundation-related news stories. On Wednesday, you can expect somewhat-live blogging from the Foundations on the Hill programs, culminating in a Cohen Report on Thursday taking stock of the various messages from and about foundations.
We think foundations are important. It’s not solely that foundation grantmaking is a significant part of nonprofit finances. It’s not that such a huge part of the nonprofit sector is touched by significant amounts of foundation grant support. But when foundation executives and staff members descend on Capitol Hill, they are educating members of Congress about philanthropy and, in the process, about the nonprofit sector. Increasingly, the public sector is looking to foundations to play partnership roles in making government programs work; witness the major foundation roles in the Social Innovation Fund or in the My Brother’s Keeper initiative launched by President Obama just last week. It’s also that foundations are being asked to play a large role in responding to critical issues on national and local agendas, as one can see reflected in the $370 million pool capitalized by several foundations ostensibly to save the art collection of the Detroit Institute of Arts from being sold off to help Detroit out of its pension debt.
We could go on with the list of important issues taken on by foundations—and the issues we wish foundations would tackle—but the point should be clear. It may be “Foundations on the Hill” or “Philanthropy Week,” but it is actually a week for all nonprofits to weigh in on the sum and substance of foundations’ roles in American society. Keep an eye on what you see here in our features and newswires this week, and weigh in with your comments and on Twitter to tell us what you think foundations ought to be talking about during Philanthropy Week in Washington.