Taking the Long View on Policy Change

Sandra Swirski and Joanne Florino

As one foundation executive notes in CEP’s recent report, Policy Influence: What Foundations are Doing and Why, engaging in public policy requires the long view. “This work often takes years to complete and to show impact,” they say. It sure does.

Stories of campaigns to achieve policy reforms that lasted decades, some of them still ongoing, abound in our nation’s history, many of them chronicled in The Philanthropy Roundtable’s guidebook, Agenda Setting. Movements to end slavery, promote conservation, restructure public education, reduce tobacco use, and improve healthcare have all demanded more of their champions than was likely anticipated — more time, greater energy, smarter strategy, additional funding, sufficient perseverance to carry on when events conspired against them, and the shrewdness to take advantage of unanticipated opportunities.

Most of all, however, these campaigns have demanded patience.

Taking the long view in policy change is not easy. The advocacy journey is rarely a straight line and can easily fall victim to obstacles and detours. Missed benchmarks, swings in public opinion, and changing political winds can leave both staff and board members of policy-focused foundations frustrated and disheartened. Beyond the obvious measure of laws passed or defeated, assessments of effectiveness are complex. It’s no surprise then, that sometimes those funders fail to see just how far they have really traveled.

Ten years ago, a CARES Act to provide pandemic relief to employers would not have prompted the current outpouring of interest by nonprofits in a loan (to grant) program. Why? Because a decade ago, nonprofits would not have been eligible to apply. Not that they would have been specifically excluded — that would mean that legislators would have actually considered and rejected them. Rather, they would have simply been overlooked because nonprofits weren’t on lawmakers’ radars as employers.

As evidence of this oversight, we have only to look to the Affordable Care Act (ACA). In the lead up to this legislation, its supporters proposed a tax credit to help small employers offer healthcare to their workers. To nonprofit organizations, which then employed over 10 percent of the nation’s workforce, a tax credit was obviously meaningless. That flaw in the bill was fixed, but not without a mad dash in the wee, dark hours. Whether or not nonprofits were cheering for the ACA, it was galling to them that their representatives failed to consider their circumstances. The initial snub was a not-so-subtle reminder that the sector was, to an extent, an afterthought for lawmakers.

In the intervening years, the sector’s voice, and consequentially its power, has evolved and grown. One contributor was certainly the ACA snafu. But the nonprofit community — charities and donors alike — also responded to the proposed cap on the charitable deduction recommended not only by the Obama Administration, but also by presidential candidates from both sides of the aisle.

The sector has learned a great deal about policy work over the past decade, including two key lessons:

  1. We are far more effective when we work together, pursuing one goal with many voices. One example of this is the Charitable Giving Coalition (CGC). Founded in 2009, the CGC has brought together more than 60 diverse organizations representing private and community foundations, their grantees and other charities, and the associations and umbrella groups that serve their needs. The CGC’s core purpose is the preservation and expansion of the charitable tax deduction.
  2. Although it is certainly important to rally supporters in responding to an unforeseen crisis, the sector’s most valuable work is engaging supporters in the less dramatic and more time-intensive process of relationship-building to ensure that nonprofits are recognized as essential community resources and not-to-be-forgotten constituents. At the federal level, while meeting with lawmakers in Washington is efficient, lawmakers somehow listen better and longer when they are back home in their constituencies. Ten miles from the Capitol amidst nonprofit leaders at a favorite café in his home state, one Virginia lawmaker immediately agreed to sponsor helpful legislation that he had been stalling on. Yes, even 10 miles makes a difference.

Even with valuable lessons learned, however, bumps along the way are inevitable. Congress passed a major tax and economic bill at the end of 2017 in which the charitable sector was a big net loser. The legislation effectively taxed charitable gifts from more than 90 percent of donors (up from about 65 percent) and, among other new taxes, added an excise tax on nonprofit employers that gave free parking and public transit benefits to their employees.

But did the sector throw up its arms and walk away from politics? Not a chance. Redoubling efforts after a loss is a small price to pay to be at the table and be taken seriously.

We recommitted to old coalitions, built new ones, and added in religious organizations that contributed their substantial political might. Along the way, Congress decided to roll back the excise tax on parking and transportation benefits, which some lawmakers referred to as the “church tax.” Not in recent memory can we recall Congress so quickly reversing itself, proving that a focused collaboration of disparate voices can lead to a swift victory.

Yet, it’s so much sweeter when you win on the front end, not the back end. And today, the sector is much better equipped to advance their interests and win on the front end. For example, after the government instructed people to stay home and ordered businesses and nonprofits to lock their doors, the CARES Act provided hundreds of billions of dollars in loans (to grants) to ALL small employers — without a pitched battle.

Congress also added in a new $300 universal charitable deduction to the CARES Act. Yes, it’s temporary and yes, it’s capped at $300. But given where we stood when we began this journey 10 years ago, this is a minor miracle — one we should recognize and celebrate…and then build on.

On June 22, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators introduced the Universal Giving Pandemic Response Act, which would allow non-itemizers to take a deduction for charitable contributions of up to about $4,000 for individuals and $8,000 for joint filers. Even if the bill fails to reach the Senate floor, we recognize the achievement and applaud its sponsors and all those who have been in the fight.

The long view indeed.

Sandra Swirski is partner at Urban Swirski & Associates and executive director of the Alliance for Charitable Reform. Follow her on Twitter at @sandra_swirski.

Joanne Florino is vice president of philanthropic services at The Philanthropy Roundtable. Follow her on Twitter at @jfloithaca.

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