Advocating for the Sector: Rob Collier on Foundations on the Hill

by Rob Collier, President & CEO of the Council of Michigan Foundations

Photo: Rob Collier

Episode 2 of Field Notes in Philanthropy, “Sittin’ Here on Capitol Hill,” explores the many ways foundations of all kinds can impact federal, state, and local policy. Our conversation was sparked by the convening, this week, of the annual Foundations on the Hill (FOTH) event in Washington, D.C.

Every year, leaders from across philanthropy’s foundation world (including community foundations, corporate foundations, private foundations, and more) gather in Washington, D.C. to meet with lawmakers and advocate on behalf of the charitable sector. This year, Foundations on Hill, took place March 12–14, and it was an opportunity for philanthropic and government leaders to discuss a range of topics, from the Johnson Amendment to the upcoming 2020 U.S. Census. Rob Collier, President & CEO of the Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF), has been a leader in supporting Michigan’s strong and active delegation for nearly 20 years. We asked him a few questions about why this event is important and how it impacts our sector in Michigan and beyond.

Why is Foundations on the Hill important?

The federal government is a significant funder of the charitable nonprofit sector — estimated to provide at least one third of its total revenue. As a result, public-private partnerships between government and nonprofits play a critical role in the sustainability of many programs that benefit those Michiganders who are most in need. It is vital that our representatives in Congress understand the significance of these partnerships that contribute to the 450,000-plus jobs in our nonprofit sector and that often require matching funds from private and community foundations.

In addition, the government makes tax policy, as we witnessed in December. The new tax law, which took effect on January 1, is likely to have a dramatic impact on how many Americans take advantage of the charitable tax deduction and whether or not that mechanism will continue to encourage giving. While Michiganders are very giving, we have learned firsthand that tax policy can affect how much they give.

Why does the Council of Michigan Foundations attend?

The Council’s participation in Foundations on the Hill dates back to our founding 45 years ago. In 1969, Congress considered abolishing endowed philanthropy and held Hearings to explore what that would mean. At that time, Michigan was (and is still) fortunate to have three of the largest private foundations in the country — W.K. Kellogg Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, and the C.S. Mott Foundation — and their leaders testified at that Hearing. Those foundation leaders realized that keeping the spirit of charitable giving alive and strong in America is a responsibility of foundations, and so they made the decision to create CMF as a membership association with a primary goal to advocate for philanthropy and the nonprofit charitable sector. CMF was the second regional association of grantmakers to be created and is now part of a national network of regional associations covering the country through the United Philanthropy Forum. Our founders also realized that while meeting with our Members of Congress in their Districts is vital, we also need to visit Washington at least once a year to thank them and their staffs for their service, and to remind them of the vital role philanthropy is playing in their Districts and statewide.

Why does Michigan send such a large contingent?

Michigan is fortunate to have more than 2,600 foundations in-state, including a robust network of community foundations covering all 83 counties. While individual giving is still the largest source of charitable dollars, foundation and corporate giving exceeds $1.7 billion annually. Our goal is to have foundations of all types — family, independent, and community, as well as corporate giving programs — represented in our Foundations on the Hill delegation. We also include leaders from the Michigan Nonprofit Association (MNA) because of our many partnerships with MNA, especially in working with our state government. In addition, we strive to have a foundation or nonprofit representative from every Congressional District as part of our contingent.

What impact does Foundations on the Hill have?

We have learned that persistence and repetition can win! Participating in Foundations on the Hill can have an impact, and I offer two examples. First, the IRA Charitable Rollover, since becoming permanent in 2015, has become the most important giving tool for middle class, retired Americans. Its creation is a result of years of work with former Congressman Dave Camp from Midland and our Midland-area and Michigan foundation members. Congressman Camp led the charge in 2006, fueled by energy and data from nonprofit and foundation leaders during our Washington meetings, as well as meetings in his hometown. Hundreds of retired Michiganders are now using the IRA Charitable Rollover as a giving tool.

As part of our Hill visits, we also meet with officials in Office of Tax Policy at the Treasury Department, and with the support of our Members of Congress, those meetings have proven to be impactful. The second example relates to a significant regulatory letter that the Treasury Department released in 2015 and which related to mission-related/impact investing. This letter, which foundation leaders had long advocated for, provides needed clarifying language permitting the use of a variety of charitable assets, not just grants, when organizations make investments in public-private partnerships, such as affordable housing. This letter enables charitable assets to be deployed in new ways to help with community economic development.

Rob Collier has served as President of the Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF) since 2000, however has been involved with CMF as a volunteer throughout his career in philanthropy, which includes: founding director of the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation, Executive Director of Rotary Charities of Traverse City, Grants Director of the Gannett Foundation and Program Officer at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. His 37 years of experience covers every type of organized philanthropy and help to Michiganders in creating family and corporate foundations as well as many donor advised funds at community foundations. Click here to learn more about Rob.

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