Philanthropists Must Reset Government Leaders’ Expectations

By Sue Santa, legal consultant

Two weeks into the new administration finds both major political parties, as well as many of Washington’s systems, on uncertain footing.

Republican control of the executive and legislative branches has not automatically ensured a unified agenda; the President is not a typical Republican, and the House and Senate are not fully aligned on priorities. The slim Republican majority in the Senate means that a few votes cast outside of party lines can disrupt expected legislative wins. Adding to the uncertainty, many of the 600-plus federal appointments that come with a normal transition of administrations remain unfilled, putting government agency work plans on pause.

Despite the political tumult, the current administration already has provided considerable clues to its general direction (and even early action) to those of us who focus on the nonprofit sector: decreased federal expenditures on social programs. Recent actions toward repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the predilections of many secretary nominees, and the hiring freeze all point toward shifting priorities and shrinking federal budgets.

Government leaders, unfortunately, may be presuming that the nonprofit sector—and philanthropy generally—will step in to fill any vacuums in service or funding created from federal pull-backs. But these expectations do not align with the math. As David Callahan, writing in Inside Philanthropy, notes in his recent article, the nonprofit sector accounts for just 5 percent of GDP, and Americans’ annual donations to charity would fuel the federal government for only about 34 days. Nonprofit organizations, some of which rely heavily on government funds, would tell you that resources are already insufficient.

Philanthropists, therefore, need to reset government leaders’ expectations. This educational process will require consistent effort and presence, not just a one-time meeting, to advocate for the work you fund and justify the value of nonprofits’ impact on the community.

Practical steps to this work include:

  • Get to know your state and local representatives. The impact of funding cuts will be felt locally, so focus on government leaders below the federal level. If you cannot secure “face time” directly with the top representative, don’t diminish the value of time spent with a senior staffer, who is very influential behind the scenes.
  • Use data. Be able to demonstrate how funders in your community will not be able to entirely fill any gaps in government support. Connect with other funders to calculate your annual available funds for granting/donations, and compare that number to a line item or category in your state/local budget. Well-conceived, concrete numbers get attention.
  • Supplement data with rich context. Tell the story of how, with your support of dollars, time, connections, and encouragement, your grantees are positively impacting the community, and why that is valuable to local growth (and the representative’s constituency).
  • Invite your representatives to witness your impact. The “ask” of your representatives is “come see what we do.” Personal experiences can catalyze action.
  • Remind your lawmaker that you share a common goal. At least in general terms, you both want to improve your communities and enrich the lives of its citizens.

The voices of funders can amplify the work of nonprofits among government leaders. Relationship-building within the government sector leverages the “power dynamic” to your and your grantees’ advantage and makes an impactful contribution beyond dollars to the causes you support.

Even with successful advocacy work, federal spending austerity will remain. Republican leaders cite that a strong economy—and the dollars for government priorities and obligations—depends on a revamped tax code. Stay tuned for my next blog post, which will explore the potential tax repercussions for private foundations and individual donors.

This is the first of a two-part series on the current political climate and implications for philanthropy, which Sue shared during a lunchtime discussion with the attendees of Exponent Philanthropy’s 990-PF Tax Seminar on January 24, 2017. Read part two >>

sue-santaSue Santa is one of the nonprofit sector’s leading experts on advocacy, policy, and legislative and regulatory issues. She has served in senior leadership positions with both Council on Foundations and The Philanthropy Roundtable. A lawyer by training, Sue also practiced law at a leading Washington, DC law, government relations, and lobbying firm. Sue is currently an adjunct faculty instructor at Columbia University School of Professional Studies, where she teaches policy and advocacy.

3 thoughts on “Philanthropists Must Reset Government Leaders’ Expectations

  1. Two Exponent Philanthropy members shared their recent and related op-ed in the Houston Chronicle:

    Excerpt: “One thing philanthropy cannot do is make up for ongoing state cuts to public education. Over the past six years, Texas has failed to restore its investment in public education even to 2011 levels. In fact, the state’s share of total state/local funding will have declined from 46 percent in 2012 to 38 percent by 2019 while not even taking into account that the student population in Texas increases by more than 80,000 students every year.”

  2. Pingback: WATCHING: Tax Reform Provisions With Implications for Philanthropy and Charity | PhilanthroFiles

  3. Pingback: Tips for Effective Meetings With Government Officials, From Our Firsthand Experience | PhilanthroFiles

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