Philanthropy Caucus

With staff turnover expected in the House, Senate and administration after the fall elections, a new Senate caucus will help to educate those on The Hill about the nonprofit sector.

The philanthropic sector has "not done a good job in the past of showing members of Congress, and giving them the tools to show, what philanthropy is doing in their district," said Steve Gunderson, CEO of the Council on Foundations (CoF) in Arlington, Va. "We hope to do a better job of that and communicate that message," he said.

"The council had always seen its job in the past as telling the field what Congress is doing. We want to change that to be more proactive rather than reportive," Gunderson said, adding that last year, the council introduced a legislative agenda of its own for the first time in many years.

U.S. Sens. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) sent a "Dear Colleague" letter just before the August recess encouraging senators to join a new Senate Philanthropy Caucus. Last year, the CoF helped to form the House Philanthropy Caucus, which now totals about 42 members.

In their letter, Schumer and Burr told colleagues: "The work done by private foundations, nonprofit groups, and individual philanthropists plays essential roles in each of our states and it is increasingly important for members of Congress to be informed about developments in the philanthropic sector."

The House Philanthropy Caucus, formed in March 2007, recently lost its co-founder and co-chair, Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio). Tubbs Jones, 58, died Aug. 20 of a brain hemorrhage, a day after suffering an aneurysm while driving. The five-term Democrat was the first black woman elected to Congress from Ohio. She established the bipartisan House caucus with Rep. Robin Hayes (R-N.C.)

The CoF chose to help establish a caucus in the House since that’s where tax bills usually start, and CoF has established relationships in the House, where Gunderson served as a congressman from Wisconsin.

The House Caucus has only met once since it was created in the spring of 2007, but Gunderson sees it as more about outreach and education of staff and legislators. The caucus, he said, is an "affinity group which automatically creates a common interest," helping to build bridges by establishing relationships with chief policy assistants.

Forming a parallel caucus in the Senate is a necessary step, said Nikie Jagpal, research director for the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) in Washington, D.C. While it’s encouraging that Congress seems to have a continued interest in learning more about philanthropy, she said it should be more than just educating legislators about what it is foundations do.

Jagpal said there seems to be a lack of an explicit link between policy, government and foundations and nonprofits. She’s hopeful that more senators will "actually engage in the caucus in a meaningful and substantive way, and acknowledge not just foundations and charities in terms of help, but find ways they can genuinely include nonprofit and grantee perspectives in their discussion."

No legislation affecting philanthropy has been enacted in the past year, so in some ways Gunderson views that as a success story, in avoiding any additional regulation for the nonprofit sector. He expects to be more active with the caucus after the August recess, as the IRA Charitable Rollover is expected to be included among tax extenders that should pass this year. In addition, people he’s spoken to on The Hill warn against introducing new and expansive initiatives in an election year.

"There are a lot of senators we have good relationships with who may or may not join caucuses. Some are just not big on caucuses, they’re not joiners like in the House," Gunderson said. "In the House, joining a caucus can make a representative become an expert and more visible in their areas of interest and in their district. It’s a way you rise to the top among 437 members," he said.

Gunderson recalled Tubbs Jones as a strong backer of the IRA Charitable Rollover who understood the importance of donor-advised funds. Most of all, he recalls her as being committed to philanthropy, but also suspect about overregulation.

The House Philanthropy Caucus focuses on promoting philanthropy in general and talking about the potential for growing philanthropy in the future, primarily through the tax code and regulations, according to Gunderson, as well as how to structure and use the caucus on Capitol Hill as a vehicle for members and staff to learn about what’s going on.

"The incredible thing about her was, any time there was a hearing about this issue, she reminded people at the hearing that she was co-chair of the House Philanthropy Caucus," Gunderson said. "She made clear her total commitment to the partnership of the philanthropic and public sectors in serving the common good," he said. Gunderson recalled another hearing, after testimony from Internal Revenue Service (IRS) officials, when Tubbs Jones was not hesitant in suggesting that their view was not a representative one. NPT

Tubbs Jones will have to be replaced as co-chair of the caucus but it will difficult, Gunderson said, since she was so valuable, as a member of "the right committee" (the powerful Ways and Means Committee), but also because she "understood philanthropy and was committed to it."