Photo: Debra Jacobs and Andrew Spector

Six Takeaways and Suggestions for Future Foundations on the Hill (FOTH) First Timers

Posted on March 26, 2024 by Andrew Spector, TPF Fellow 2023/24
From February 25-28, I attended Foundations on the Hill (FOTH), an annual conference organized by United Philanthropy Forum, Council on Foundations, and Independent Sector. Foundations, Philanthropic Serving Organizations (PSOs), and philanthropic advocacy organizations from around the country gather in Washington, D.C. to network, deepen advocacy skills, and meet with elected officials about policies to strengthen the philanthropic sector.

This was my first time at FOTH, and I’m returning to Sarasota grateful for the opportunity, more connected to colleagues from around the country, more educated on advocacy, and inspired by what’s possible when our sector comes together around a shared purpose. While I’m by no means an expert after one year, below are six takeaways and suggestions for future FOTH first-timers.

1. Start Early
FOTH actually begins months in advance. Effective advocacy requires building a relationship with your representative’s office before showing up on the Hill and making an ask. In the months prior to FOTH, visit them at your local office. Learn their values and priorities, get to know them and their staff, share about your role in their community, and discover how you might be able to support their efforts. Even though they’re in the business of public service, elected officials and their teams are still humans who don’t want to feel like servants. Don’t just show up and make an ask; build a real relationship with them.

2. Show Up to Everything
Everything at FOTH is an opportunity to learn and connect. If you’re able to, get in early to attend the pre-conference sessions on Sunday afternoon. Prioritize all the happy hours, receptions, and mixers. Even when you don’t want to get up early or don’t feel like you can sit through another panel, go to the sessions throughout the day on Monday. If your regional PSO organizes a dinner, go to it.

3. Network
Thanks to Jaci Bertrand and the Philanthropy Southeast team, I had the opportunity to shadow Gilbert Miller and Allen Mast, both members of the Georgia delegation, for one of their meetings on the Hill. I expressed to them concern about bringing a Florida guy along for the ride. I thought elected officials only wanted to hear from constituents? Gilbert and Allen assured me that while being a constituent is important, it’s not an automatic negative to show up with someone from outside of their district. In fact, it can be a chance to show them how collaborative the philanthropic sector is. Lean into this collaboration while at FOTH by taking advantage of the abundant opportunities to network. Everyone there is friendly, welcoming, and happy to share their wisdom with you.

4. Know Your Stuff
When meeting with an elected official or member of their team, first, as concisely as possible, help them understand what you do and your role in your community. Then, focus on 1-3 specific asks. Root those asks in clear and thoughtful reasoning. Know their priorities ahead of time and whether they have co-sponsored a bill for which you’re asking. Understand the current context in Congress and the Senate and how their focus may be elsewhere during that time. For instance, this year, it would have come across as tone-deaf if you didn’t at least allude to your knowledge of and empathy for a potential government shutdown.

5. Act Long-Term
Although you might be frustrated by how you’re treated or disappointed with the outcome, remember that you may need to come back into a relationship with this elected official or staff member in the future. Don’t burn the bridge. Respectfully push back, get curious about their reasoning, or agree to disagree. Persistence and authentic relationships may pay off in the long term. Moreover, don’t be disappointed if you meet with a staffer instead of the elected official. Sometimes, this can be more effective. Plus, the staffer may work for many offices over their career, and this could be a valuable relationship in the long term.

6. Follow Up
You won’t come across as serious if you don’t follow up. Send them a thank you note after. Call back to check if they fulfilled their ask. Keep communicating if they don’t get back to you.

Advocacy is one of many educational and engagement tools in the toolbelt of the philanthropic sector. Thank you to the FOTH planning team for putting together such a powerful conference.

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