General News

Switzer Foundation goes to Capitol Hill for Foundations on the Hill

Fellow(s): Lissa Widoff

Every year in March, foundation representatives from around the country gather in Washington DC for Foundations on the Hill to meet with their Senators and Representatives to inform and educate them about the role of philanthropy in their states. I had the honor of being invited to join the Maine delegation with the support of the Council on Foundations and the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers. Over 200 foundations were represented and I joined my colleagues Janet Henry of the Maine Philanthropy Center and Carl Little of the Maine Community Foundation to form our Maine team.

While we had the opportunity to hear from colleagues and panels of presenters on the first day of the conference, the undercurrent was both gratifying and alarming. Gratifying in that there are fabulous stories about the role that foundations and their nonprofit partners play in every corner of the country and the neutral role foundations have as a much-needed ingredient to advance many aspects of public policy. The alarming lesson in all this, as was aptly described by our retiring Maine Senator Olympia Snowe, is that the deadlock and partisanship in Congress has essentially brought all reasonable debate and problem-solving to a halt, and even more so in an election year.

The policy issues about which we were prepared to educate our congressional representatives included charitable deductions, excise tax on investments and other charitable incentives and constraints. Nonprofits and communities act in partnership with funders and donors to achieve common good. Yet as the policy debate remains frozen on topics ranging from climate change to tax reform, the sense of despair among congressional staffers and even representatives was palpable.

It does seem that in spite of inaction on a policy level, our democracy does provide for open access to our congress men and women for dialogue, relationship building and education. We had the opportunity to speak with Representative Mike Michaud about the northern forest region in Maine, economic development and Veteran’s affairs. With Rep. Chellie Pingree we talked about the Farm Bill, rural communities and education. Their dedication to the public policy process and serving their constituents in any way possible is nothing short of inspiring. I urge all of us to take our issues and our passion to meet with our elected officials at any level. They wish to serve, and meeting with them to outline shared interests, even if for only a few minutes, is a contribution each of us can make to the political and policy process.

You can also read Carl Little’s blog post on what it was like for us first-timers on the “hill”.