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COF 2010: Foundations Need to Step up Advocacy in Congress

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Foundation leaders can no longer assume that policymakers share their view of the sector's role -- it is up to these leaders to tell philanthropy's story in a way that can be appreciated and understood. This was among the conclusions of the members of the Aspen Philanthropy Group (APG) in their inaugural meeting last July. It was a key theme that emerged in a concurrent nonprofit sector-wide strategy session led by the Independent Sector in Colorado Springs. And it was a refrain at this year's Council on Foundations' Annual Conference.

At a time when state legislators are seeking to shift responsibility for financing social services from the public to the philanthropic sector, the Council legal team called attention instead to the U.S. Congress, where some members have questioned the tax exemptions that foundations enjoy. The team reports that this Congressional sentiment is only shared by a few members and that calls for change are at a "low simmer." Nonetheless, according to the Council's Kelly Shippe Simone and Chatrane Birbal, Congress is expected to consider tax reform measures, including tax exemption, next year.

While that gives nonprofit advocates time to make their case, APG would argue that the issue is not a matter of fending off legislation or of defensive moves more generally. Rather it is a matter of efficacy. Those who seek to advance the public good need to partner and to leverage one another so as to enhance their collective impact. Doing so first requires an understanding of their respective roles. Arguments between the public and philanthropic sectors are an indulgence we cannot afford, especially at a time when resources are reduced and public needs have expanded.