Foundations on the Hill Reflections

Jacob A. James is a member of the Catalyst Public Policy & Advocacy Committee and serves on the Boards of The San Diego Foundation and the San Diego Regional Disaster Fund. By day, he is a public affairs consultant whose firm works at the nexus of public policy, advocacy, and philanthropy. We recently caught up with him to share his reflections on attending FOTH 2021.


Written by Jacob A. James


Foundations on The Hill (FOTH) is an annual convening and week of action which took place virtually March 16-25, 2021. The event is hosted by the United Philanthropy Forum in partnership with the Council on Foundations and Independent Sector. FOTH brings together hundreds of philanthropy professionals, advocates, and legislative experts to exchange ideas on U.S. federal policy issues facing the philanthropic sector and the nonprofits they support. Critically, the conference is paired with dozens and dozens of virtual meetings between lawmakers and these same philanthropies from all around the country.


I was honored to participate in FOTH 2021 as a Catalyst member. To be frank, as a conference-skeptic (virtual, no less!), I was pleasantly surprised by the wisdom I gleaned from the excellently chosen panelists and speakers. Hats off to the organizers. This, even despite the pandemic-imposed and glaringly missing conference component which those of us in the advocacy space love to hate but conversely miss ever so much: schmoozing. As consolation, my dog (Hurricane José) didn’t mind the extra time at the beach.


In the weeks leading to FOTH, the philanthropic sector was, in general, mightily throwing our weight behind the American Rescue Plan, signed into law by President Biden on March 11, 2021. Reflecting back, it struck me that if FOTH were held today, only days later, we’d likely be finding creative ways to generally support passage of the new infrastructure/American Jobs Plan. If gun control or the climate crisis were the live legislative issues of the day, we’d go there. This adaptability makes me deeply appreciate philanthropy’s universality – and in my opinion responsibility – to advocate for the broad public good and not only within our own areas of interest or specialty. We do exist, after all, to do good works for humans and the planet. At our best, we are a rare unbound counter-weight to life’s more sinister realities. 


A key theme of FOTH 2021 was philanthropy’s own grappling with its ability to significantly advance actual racial equity in the United States. One panelist’s bottom line comment struck me: “A lot of these inequalities exist because of bad public policy.”  So while so much work is newly and rightfully going into funding the acceleration of racial equity, we should also engage far more directly in correcting these underlying policies. Equity is the issue of the day – as it should be – but in my experience, the principle that philanthropy needs to engage more with policymakers in order to achieve real systems change is as true on this subject as almost any. Money talks. Philanthropy is more than money. We are most effective when we do both.


The best part of the week were the meetings Catalyst arranged with members of the San Diego delegation. First and foremost, the mutual excitement around the future potential of public-private partnership was palpable. This knowledge and embrace of public-private cooperation has been an amazing development through the course of my years observing San Diego civics. It is an incredibly hopeful sign for the vibrancy and modernity of our region. In our specific meetings:

  • Representative Mike Levin (CA-49) arrived on Zoom with his characteristic zest for life, incredible insight into North County San Diego, and a receptive ear.
  • Representative Juan Vargas’ (CA-51) senior staff demonstrated a truly impressive knowledge of the health equity issues ravaging South Bay – and with specific ideas how to tackle them in partnership with the nonprofit sector.
  • Representative Scott Peters (CA-53), a former board member of The San Diego Foundation himself, enthusiastically live-brainstormed with our group about channelling newly passed American Rescue Plan federal resources to San Diego, acting on both his deep passion and pragmatic approach for tackling the climate crisis.  


These meetings gave us the opportunity to update the delegation on the amazing work of The San Diego COVID-19 Community Response Fund at The San Diego Foundation (read the fund’s latest impact report here). Speaking about the generosity of San Diegans (to the tune of $66+ million) through the Community Response Fund provided an excellent opportunity to ask our legislators to co-sponsor the Universal Giving Pandemic Response & Recovery Act (H.R. 1704). In short, this bill incentives more charitable giving by expanding the temporary tax deduction that was part of CARES Act for non-itemizing tax filers. This straightforward tax policy would increase charitable giving at this critical moment; collectively, we face the four crises of our lifetime: COVID-19, economic turmoil, racial justice, and climate change. Every dollar helps – let’s get more of them flowing toward the public good. 


Catalyst thanks Representative Mike Levin (CA-49) for so quickly signing on to this important legislation during Foundations on the Hill, and we encourage the rest of the San Diego delegation – Representative Vargas, Representative Peters, Representative Sara Jacobs (CA-53), and Representative Darrel Issa (CA-50) – to follow suit.  We thank each of them for their tireless advocacy in Congress on behalf of our beloved region.


Please consider joining Catalyst for Foundations on the Hill 2022 and Sacramento Day. For more information, connect here.