2016 is a period of flux in US politics with changes afoot in the Presidency, Supreme Court and Senate as well as tax reform proposals due at the end of the year. In this context, the 2016 Council on Foundations conference had a decidedly political slant. First up was an offbeat briefing on the upcoming presidential election from veteran pundits, Charlie Cook and Stuart Rothenberg. Guests were treated to popcorn, American flag bunting and wry observations about election excess.
What do these changes mean for American philanthropy? Delegates were briefed by political advisers in a two-part ‘Washington Update’ session. Political insiders pointed to a relatively benign climate for philanthropy highlighting the reduction in excise tax on foundations from 2 per cent to 1 per cent, the conferring of public charity and thus tax exempt status on agricultural research organisations and several other beneficial provisions. As one political advisor put it, it would be a good year for the philanthropy sector if nothing more happens and the status quo is maintained.
Not everyone shared that sense of passive optimism.
A follow-on panel brought together several respondents from the philanthropy sector. They included Peter Bird of the Frist Foundation, a family Foundation, and Mary Jalonick of the Dallas Community Foundation. Their anxiety was palpable. Bird expressed fears that the political environment might turn increasingly hostile to philanthropy. He highlighted some of the growing number of critiques of foundations, for example, that community foundations and Donor Advised Funds (DAF’s) ‘warehoused’ wealth rather than distributed it and that foundations time-spans should not be unlimited. In this context, Bird argued that foundations need to be on ‘tornado watch’ and be vigilant for hostile acts including measures in so-called ‘sleeper’ legislation that could have a detrimental impact on the freedom of foundations.
Mary Jalonick echoed these concerns. She argued that philanthropy in general, and community foundations in particular, needed to be on the front foot telling the positive story of community foundations and how they promote public good. Jalonick noted that aggregate ‘pay-out’ rates (the amount of an endowment that is paid in grants each year) of community foundations are higher than 5 per cent despite no legal obligation to give a mandated amount. This is significant as the mandatory pay-out rate for private foundations is 5 per cent. If community foundations already pay out more than this amount, then why impose additional obligations that are already been met. The Dallas foundation is now conducting an audit of funds under management which they hope, together with national standards for community foundations, will contribute to making the case for continued self-regulation. Sue Santa, senior vice president for public policy at the Council on Foundations, concurred suggesting that these and other measures could help ‘pacify’ concerns of legislators and other interested parties.
The focus on lobbying skills and tools within the US philanthropy sector was also on display in a session on ‘Philanthropy and Advocacy’. Billed as a ‘deep dive’ to learn and share best practice, delegates were given a brief overview of the law around lobbying and advocacy from in-house attorneys and then, in small groups, discussed responses to hypothetical scenarios. This was particularly instructive as it turned out that the scenarios – which included efforts to ensure continued federal funding of child nutrition – turned out to be real examples from the field.
After a period of benign neglect, philanthropy is now on the agenda of political decision-makers and politics is on philanthropy’s agenda. The conversation in the coming months is one to watch.
Charles Keidan is editor of Alliance magazine.