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Five Reasons My Foundation Will Be On the Hill


It was a moment from an Aaron Sorkin script. “Walk with me,” Rep. French Hill said as we entered the Members Only elevator. Hill, a Republican who represents central Arkansas, including Little Rock, had been buzzed for a floor vote but wanted to learn more about Expect More, our foundation’s new economic equity initiative. As we speedwalked the halls of Congress, I talked about our vision for Arkansas. Through echoing tunnels we discussed how it connected with his workforce agenda. As we arrived at security, I offered some ways we could be a resource in the future. Cue the music.

Moments like this are more common than not at Foundations on the Hill (FOTH). FOTH is a two-day event that brings foundation leaders to Washington, D.C., for meetings with Congress about key issues for foundations and philanthropy. The time my organization, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, spends at FOTH each year is intense, exciting, and incredibly valuable. There’s a multitude of reasons you should be there. I’ve tried to narrow it down to my top five:

1. Members of Congress Sometimes Forget What Foundations Do

Don’t get me wrong, they know the basics. Foundations make grants, right? If you’re not in the day-to-day of philanthropy, it’s easy to forget how much foundations do. At FOTH we remind lawmakers that we do more than write checks. We bring our latest research. My foundation supports evaluation of innovative programs, and produces nonpartisan quality data to help people make good decisions about education, immigration, jobs and communities. We talk about our initiatives to encourage innovation, and place-based models for large-scale change. We talk about how we bring people together. Policymakers like few things more than an audience, and foundations have a unique capacity to gather folks to talk about what’s important in communities. FOTH is an opportunity to talk to your representatives about the social, moral, intellectual and reputational capital foundations have to deploy.

2. Government (Usually) Has More Money Than Your Foundation

Our foundation’s 2018 budget was about $6 million. The federal budget was $4 trillion. When we are on the Hill, we remind our representatives and senators that foundations can’t replace public dollars. The recent government shutdown was a devastating reminder. When public services are stably supporting communities, foundations have the flexibility and the resources to experiment and innovate. This year, one thing my foundation will talk about is ForwARd Arkansas, a public-private partnership for educational equity and student achievement. Foundation investments in initiatives like this may be small compared to the budgets of our education systems, but our dollars are vital to spurring innovation to improve those systems’ effectiveness for all.

3. Celebrity Politician-Spotting Is Fun

Have you been in the background of a Bernie Sanders press conference? Did you meet with Tom Cotton the week after the Iran Letter? Have you spotted a sleepy Cory Booker eating a granola bar in a Senate coffee shop? If Politico is on your bookmarks tab, your favorite office gossip includes House bill numbers, and Face the Nation is on your DVR, you’re going to have a great time on the Hill. Sure, policy and relationships are the meat and potatoes of the FOTH experience, but geeking out over seeing your favorite congressperson IRL is the gravy.

4. Building Relationships That Continue Back Home

It’s great when your senator or representative knows your name and foundation. But just as valuable as time with your congressperson is time with the talented staff in their offices. If your foundation works on health, make sure their health policy staff are invited to your meetings. If you have grantees who rely on federal education grants, get to know their education staff. If you include the topics you will bring to the meeting when you set your appointments for FOTH, the right staff will carry on the conversation long after your flight home and will pay benefits when you visit local offices in your state.

5. Connecting with New and Old Friends

For the last several years, at the end of a long day pounding the pavement between the Russell, Dirksen, Hart, Cannon, Longworth and Rayburn office buildings, there’s been nothing like kicking back to rest my feet over dinner, drinks and dessert with friends from Arkansas and around the Southeast. You won’t be able to avoid deepening friendships at FOTH. Our Arkansas group almost always ends up taking a FOTH first-timer under our wing during Hill visits. We can’t count the number of honorary Arkansans we’ve racked up along the way. We learn from each other in conference sessions, break bread in congressional cafeterias, and enjoy fellowship at the end of the day. FOTH is hard work, but it's the kind of work that results in shared experience, illuminates common struggles, and generates new ideas for how we can make the Southeast a better place for everyone.

Russell Carey is a program associate at the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and a Hull Fellows alumnus.

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