Not a day has gone by since I joined the Council two months ago when I haven’t thought about the awesome responsibility and privilege I have to help make the Council an organization that fully reflects the promise of philanthropy and impact you generate.
With more than a thousand philanthropic leaders here at our Fall Conference in New Orleans, there’s quite an impressive group of people to learn from. What’s been most inspiring to me is hearing about the work community foundations do and the impact they strive to have. These stories are the soul of our sector, and we must share them so more people understand what philanthropy really is and what it accomplishes.
More people need to know about the issues with which foundations are intimately familiar. They need to understand what is truly threatening our communities, and how you are addressing these challenges. At this afternoon’s plenary session, New Orleans Mayor Mitchell Landrieu struck a deep, painful nerve when he spoke about the catastrophe of crime violence in America’s cities. His remarks, and the emotions he inspired in the room, illustrate how showcasing the personal impact of an issue can exemplify the importance of philanthropy. I urge you to work with the organizations and institutions you support to deliver a clear message about your role in society today and what it can be in the future. At the end of the day, it’s not about us; it’s about the people, ideas, initiatives, and the difference your work makes.
The challenges we face are daunting–double-digit unemployment in many communities, the highest poverty rates this country has seen since 1960, children facing food insecurity and even hunger–all of this putting pressure on a fraying safety net. Each of you provides a spark of hope because you catalyze solutions that make a difference. You are the fuel powering positive change.
Yet philanthropy remains a mystery to so many. As your national voice, I am committed to making the Council an organization that champions philanthropy’s cause. To help us do so, I ask you to join us in highlighting the impact you and your partners create to address the issues threatening our society. We will provide the overarching platform to make the results of philanthropy better understood, but it’s your hard work and strategic investments that makes this real and demystifies the sector.
We have a tremendous opportunity to promote philanthropy’s value as part of a global ecosystem for greater good. Without it, the rest of the ecosystem won’t survive. Which is why, when the opportunity to lead the Council was presented to me, I saw a chance to take on a challenge and address this lack of understanding around philanthropy, what it does, and how it can make the world a better place.
The Economist reported in June that America is the most philanthropic nation in the world, with giving accounting for nearly 2 percent of GDP. As economies are more intertwined and needs know no borders, philanthropy’s influence will grow globally. Yet philanthropy–the love of humankind—struggles as a sector to define and defend itself. Now more than ever, we need to clearly communicate philanthropy’s value and why it matters.
Much has been written to suggest that foundations must think differently about their missions, their practices, and their impact on the world. Perhaps, like everything else in life, we need a little more balance. Maybe we need to think a little less about process and metrics–the how of philanthropy–and think more about the passion, motivation, and desire to make a difference–the why of philanthropy.
So how do we, as a sector, define and best represent ourselves? We can start by focusing on the future and what philanthropy can make possible. The Council will support you with tools and ideas to amplify the changes you inspire and generate. I commit that our staff will work as hard as you do each day in your communities to lift up the narrative of hope, possibility, and solutions you champion. We’ll also provide you with the services and support you need to be the strategist, convener, risk taker, and innovator in your community.
Increasing the understanding of the impact of philanthropy is critical to preserving and enhancing your ability to continue to effect positive change. The Council will ensure that each of you, and philanthropy as a sector, is able to give as much as possible, wherever it is needed, to have a positive impact on those who need help the most.
In 2014, we’ll celebrate the centennial of the first community foundation, the Cleveland Foundation. This is an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the complex and growing changes facing our communities now and into the future, and provide solutions.
As our field and the world changes at an ever-quickening pace, the Council will become the place for leaders to come together and envision a more positive environment for philanthropy, nationally and globally. The services we offer will better align with your changing demands and add greater value to your work.
I envision the Council as a more strategic, proactive, and persuasive advocate for the role of philanthropy in the halls of Congress. We all know that comprehensive tax reform is coming, regardless of the outcome of the upcoming election, and decisions will be made that quite likely will affect our sector. We have to ensure that policymakers understand the implications of altering the charitable deduction–not for foundations but for the constituents and communities those foundations serve (and those elected officials represent.)
In his book, Too Big to Know, David Weinberger has a great quote: He says in today’s data and information-rich world “the smartest person in the room is the room itself.” For me, that statement underscores the power of our collective presence and purpose.
There is great value and power in coming together as a field.
The Council will tap into the experiences and expertise of our members to identify trends, make connections among you, and spotlight the best examples of your successes that will help us all learn. We are uniquely positioned to accomplish this and in so doing strengthen our sector and pave the way for more good work. We want to ensure that on a national and global scale, the individual accomplishments of each foundation are brought together and leveraged in a way that translates the power, size, and scope of philanthropy into greater understanding.
That is the Council I want to deliver to you–a Council that provides the resources you need to have greater impact and a platform for the sector to effectively share the passion and experience that drives philanthropy and transforms the communities you serve.
At a time of chronic economic challenges and growing need, this is philanthropy’s moment. What we do matters, and never more so than right now.
Vikki Spruill is president and CEO of the Council on Foundations