Over the past three weeks, I’ve had the good fortune to attend the West Virginia Grantmakers and Philanthropy Northwest annual conferences in Roanoke, W.Va., and Missoula, Mont., respectively. As two of our esteemed regional association partner organizations, their annual conferences are unique celebrations of both place and the promise of philanthropy. If you believe as I do that all philanthropy is at some point local, then regional associations and the Council are logically natural partners within the philanthropic neural network that serves the field.
Amidst brilliant, early fall foliage, West Virginia Grantmakers, which creates opportunities for the exchange of ideas and information, disseminates information about current trends and research in philanthropy, builds partnerships within and outside of West Virginia, and advances stewardship of philanthropic resources for the betterment of all West Virginia residents, welcomed a record crowd. The conference theme, “Strengthening Momentum in West Virginia,” was supported by the following equation: Knowledge + Connections + Leverage = Impact. While the association defines itself by state boundaries, it quickly became apparent that West Virginians are not alone in their love for and dedication to the state. Colleagues from Belize, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Washington, D.C., teamed with West Virginians to create a series of rich conversations that placed knowledge, connections, and leverage in context, shared stories of impact across the state, and created an aspirational framework for the future.
Philanthropy Northwest, which works to build a strong philanthropic community that reflects the diversity of the six-state Pacific Northwest; connect people to each other so they can achieve more with their giving; and inspire action to address critical issues in society, also welcomed a record crowd to the Big Sky state, which was in the midst of a classic run of beautiful Northern Rockies fall weather. With a theme of “Barn Raising: The Art of Collaboration,” the conference used that appropriate metaphor to deeply explore the idea that civil society has always been based on the fact that people come together because they have to in order to build a better life. From this interdependence springs the notion of “civic capacity,” or the ability to capitalize on new and deeper connections among citizens to define shared visions for a place. In the closing plenary, Susan Raymond challenged philanthropy to raise its aspirations in “Partnering with Financial Innovation on the Societal Commons: The Leadership Opportunity of a Lifetime.”
Author-farmer Wendell Berry best described my personal orientation to place when he observed, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.” From a cultural perspective, both conferences made place special. In Roanoke, Lewis County High School’s LC Blue, a student-faculty collaboration, was masterful in Appalachian bluegrass while West Virginia Wesleyan College’s Concentus Vocum shared a beautiful rendition of the unofficial state song, My Home Among the Hills. In Missoula, the Washington Family Grant Creek Ranch, a working ranch on the edge of the Rattlesnake Wilderness, served as the backdrop for a true western evening.
It’s an honor to be invited to share philanthropy in its most vibrant and unique setting: a local place. That said, no one would suggest that regional and national knowledge, networks, and voices are not equally critical to the success of our field. The challenge before the sector is to realize the inherent leverage in these powerful, overlapping networks in order to innovatively and effectively promote the common good.
Jeff Clarke is interim president and CEO for the Council on Foundations.