Last week was Philanthropy Week, a very different sort of event from, say, National Gumdrop Day. The latter – there really is such a thing – is a one-off marketing event on February 15 to help people better appreciate (and buy) the noble gumdrop. But you won’t likely see squads of gumdrop lobbyists huddling every year behind closed doors with the likes of Harry Reid or John Boehner.
But that’s precisely what happens in our world as Philanthropy Week offers a durable pretext for foundation representatives to crawl the corridors of Congress, invariably clamoring against limits or floors on charitable deductions, lobbying in favor of excise tax reductions, and expressing concerns about the valuation of real estate allowances.
There’s nothing wrong with this activity. As we’ve often said on this site, philanthropy is a business subject to the same pressures and opportunities as any other business. It’s the one message to Congress that all the diverse foundations bespeak in common during Philanthropy Week. That said, in terms of ultimate public interest, it’s the least important.
For the public, the really important part, is all about defining new agendas and, importantly, determining the role that the public sector officials to whom we talk should play in those efforts. That’s where it all must get a little sticky for many congressmen.
After all, some foundations are conservative. They want tax considerations but not usually a partnership with big bad old government. Others are liberal. They want to be part of significantly increased social spending in what’s tantamount to a collaborative investment. What a mix of messages Congress must be hearing during Philanthropy Week! What a Tower of Babel! – especially for those centrist politicians who can expect to find themselves targeted by both sides.
Yet that Tower of Beltway Babel, however noisy, may not be such a bad place to operate after all. Isn’t Washington supposed to be a crossroads of conflicting agendas? Why should foundations expect democracy to be at all less challenging for them?
So here’s my prescription for next year’s Philanthropy Week. Let’s go to Washington and let our elected officials tell us what they want. Let’s hear about the daycare centers in their districts, the endangered museums in their cities. Let’s let them tell us what roles they think they should be playing.
If we like what we hear, fine. If not, there will be others in town for them to talk to.