By Kristina Nygaard and Cynthia Schaal, Exponent Philanthropy
This year’s Foundations on the Hill (FOTH) was hosted by the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers in partnership with the Council on Foundations and Alliance for Charitable Reform. FOTH is a multiday event that brings foundation leaders from across the country to Washington, DC for meetings with Congress about key issues of importance to foundations and philanthropy. Foundation trustees and staff work with their regional associations to schedule meetings on Capitol Hill to personally discuss their work with members of Congress.
Excited to join members and staff from Philanthropy California for meetings with some of their representatives, we left our DC office for Capitol Hill to represent the small-staffed foundation perspective. We also wanted to gain firsthand experience in meeting with elected officials to determine further ways to support our members interested in advocacy.
Our top takeaways on effective in-person meetings with elected officials include:
Share local connections and stories
Be prepared to share specific stories of how the projects and organizations you support positively impact a local issue that is also high on the official’s agenda. Stating if you are originally from and/or live in their state/district, actively fund organizations in those areas, and have mutual professional and personal contacts also resonated in meetings. Senators and representatives were keenly interested in hearing their constituents’ concerns, not merely broad national issues.
Position yourself as a resource
Don’t assume that your representatives know much about your work, your funding area, or even the philanthropic sector. In-person meetings are a great way to educate, ask how you can be of help, and offer your assistance with information and connections should they need it. Just because lawmakers hear about your issue area doesn’t mean they’ll automatically know the right next step.
Emphasize the need for partnership and collaboration
Many conversations focused on how philanthropic dollars cannot fully replace government support. Ideally, public and private funding efforts coordinate to maximize local impact. Foundations, particularly those with few or no staff, are in a unique position to take risks, respond nimbly to emerging community needs, and fund pilot approaches that government’s bureaucratic infrastructure may not be able to support.
Keep continual contact with representatives
Although a single in-person conversation can be powerful, make sure to build a relationship with your representatives over time: make phone calls, write letters, seek further meetings, and invite them to a site visit with your grantees to personally connect with your impact. Such connections foster dialogue, active listening, and progress.
We are in the process of stocking our library of resources on the topics of advocacy and civic engagement. If you have stories of a successful government relationship or a thriving advocacy strategy, we’d love to hear from you.
Also check out Exponent Philanthropy’s publication Funding and Engaging in Advocacy: Opportunities for Small Foundations (available via download or hard copy)
Program coordinator Kristina Nygaard manages our one-day seminars and provides support to our Programs and Services Team. She is the master of our registration system and is key in providing excellent support and assistance to members.
Chief program officer Cynthia Schaal leads the development of programs and services that guide and connect member philanthropists and champion the impact of their work in the philanthropic community. She brings to the role extensive past experience in generating best practice insights and resources for nonprofit hospital and health system leaders.