The Council on Foundations 2011 Annual Conference ended with a spirited and thought-provoking debate during the final session that put “philanthropy on trial.” Charged with not fulfilling its mission, philanthropy was impelled to defend how effectively it has advanced the common good.
In opening arguments, Gara LaMarche, president and CEO of The Atlantic Philanthropies, served as the prosecutor. He claimed that philanthropy is preoccupied with its own self-interests and too focused on near-term charity instead of riskier, longer-term strategic change. The lack of diversity in foundation boards and senior leadership stands in the way of meeting its mission, LaMarche contended.
Ralph Smith, executive vice president of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, represented the defense for philanthropy. He spoke about the ideological diversity that has always been the hallmark of the sector, citing examples of philanthropy’s successes—as varied as hospice, 911, Sesame Street, and rocket science—and areas where philanthropy works to improve quality of life. He also noted leaders of color, demonstrating the extraordinarily diverse talent in the field.
Each closed with a strong argument: a guilty verdict would indicate that philanthropy must hold itself accountable and be less focused on its self-interests; a not-guilty verdict would be a call to action that honors philanthropy’s past, embraces its present, and looks towards its future.
While the jury—composed of audience members selected at random—debated heavily outside the “trial” room, the conversation continued among LaMarche, Smith, and session attendees. The jury initially returned without a verdict, causing gasps of shock from session attendees. But polling revealed the jury was split, guilty by a margin of 10-2.
What does this mean? As a field, philanthropy has miles to go to truly reflect the diversity in society. Risk aversion continues to be an issue but significant change can’t occur without it.
Both LaMarche and Smith admitted to playing roles that didn’t necessarily represent their own principles; in actuality, there isn’t much that separates their beliefs. They agreed, as many do, that organized philanthropy has work to do.
We’d like to continue the debate in 2012. As Daniel Silverman of the James Irvine Foundation asked in a previous blog, what do we need to learn, hear, and share during next year’s Annual Conference to further the discussion and propel philanthropy? Let us know as planning begins for Los Angeles 2012. Let’s learn from one another, challenge one another, and hold one another accountable. As a field, it is absolutely necessary to live up to the laudable—and measurable—goal of advancing the common good.
Kisha Green Dimbo is executive vice president and COO of the Council on Foundations