Foundations on the Hill: Understand and Participate in the Political Process - Exponent Philanthropy
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Foundations on the Hill: Understand and Participate in the Political Process

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Policymakers never stop working, so it’s always the right time to engage legislators and officials. Your presence ensures policymakers hear your concerns, while absence might lead to them overlooking your issues. Foundations and their trustees tend to opt out of meeting with elected officials. But not only do policymakers need to hear from philanthropists, they want to hear from you. Learn how your foundation can understand and participate in the political process and get tips for meeting with government officials in this blog.

Understand and Participate in the Political Process

Philanthropists bring money, knowledge, and many other resources to the policy table — an unusual and enviable position. Here are specific strategies from our Advocacy Field Guide that foundations can use to better understand and participate in the political process.

Know the Policymakers

The best thing foundations can do to become effective at advocacy is to build personal relationships. You may think you know how a policymaker will make their decisions, but do you really know their internal motivations? Your donors and trustees may already have relationships with local and state legislators or other officials; these can be a beginning point. The best way to establish a relationship is to visit and talk about issues you care about.

Start Early

Effective advocacy demands that foundations not show up at the last minute to a policy conversation. Smart philanthropists have learned that building long-standing and sustainable relationships with policymakers and their staff takes time and patience.

Be Relevant

Policymakers are responsive to the public. If something is important to voters, it is important to elected officials and their staff. The more topical your policy requests are, the more likely policymakers will be to engage with you and your foundation. For example, foundations have long experience working in education and disaster relief and recovery. At critical moments, that knowledge is priceless to the public sector.

Be Principled Without Being Partisan

Politicians will do their best to win you to their side. However, most also understand that your role as a foundation is to provide nonpartisan and unbiased information to all sides. Your job is not to pick winners and losers but to help solve issues important to the community.

Be Present

Politics is about presence. Never miss a chance to make your case in an official setting. You can use the political process in these settings and in these ways:

  • Monitor regulatory and administrative hearings.
  • Participate in legislative briefings and organized meetings at legislatures and other government functions.
  • Participate in city council, school board and county commissioner meetings.
  • Meet directly with policymakers at all levels of government.
  • Meet with candidates for elected offices at the county or state level.
  • Convene other funders to directly engage policymakers about shared concerns and interests.
  • Conduct town hall meetings with policymakers.
  • Sponsor candidate debates.
  • Provide and support public testimony.

As a funder, you have power and a voice that many others in society don’t have. Be aware of your power and embrace it without losing your sense of responsibility and humility. Recognize when and where lending your voice and reputation can make a big difference to advance the public good.

Tips for Meeting with Government Officials

After Foundations on the Hill in 2017, Exponent Philanthropy staff shared their top takeaways for having effective in-person meetings with elected officials. Here’s what they said:

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.

Additional Resources to Begin Your Advocacy Journey

Advocacy Field Guide for Lean Funders
We designed this field guide specifically to help leanly-staffed foundations and donors fund and engage in policy directly. At its core is a set of seven practical, field-tested steps for funding and engaging in advocacy. Download »

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