I recently returned from the Council on Foundations 2011 Annual Conference. It was a thought-provoking gathering that raised many more questions about the field of philanthropy than it answered. That said, time and time again, it reaffirmed for me the need for the work of organizations like Community Wealth Ventures and our colleagues in the field.
A few critical themes raised by Foundation leaders that remain on my mind:
1. Fund fundraising and capacity building efforts. Dan Pallotta opened the conference, arguing that “when you fund programs, you buy something. When you fund fundraising, you build something.” He professed that only when foundations embrace this understanding will we achieve the social impact desired.
2. Systemic change is an imperative. We must encourage use of transformative grantmaking approaches that realize greater leverage. For too long, foundations have had the luxury of not investing activities that change systems. Several Foundation leaders called for more Foundations to fund social justice activities that solve issues of inequality and poverty. Furthermore, Foundations like Kellogg, Tides and Casey argued that the philanthropic community must transform itself, and get comfortable with funding different types of ventures that scale social solutions. Program Related Investments and Mission Related Investments were highlighted as high-potential tools.
3. Systemic change is closely linked to diversity. Diversity is something we value. But we still have not come far enough. Some Foundation leaders charged that foundations create processes and systems that foster standards and norms that silence debate and opposing views. The argument was made that only when we realize conflict through debating diverse viewpoints will we transform systems.
4. Systems change happens locally but often is realized with the help of national partners. National leaders and all technical providers cannot lose sight of the individuals we serve in communities. The Council ran several sight visits not unlike Share Our Strength’s Hinges of Hope tours which help foundations “be present in the market” and understand the issues in a very visceral way. The community voices must be part of the systematic change effort.
5. 21st Century Philanthropy will feel more democratic. Much of what I observed was about power. While change is not easy, leaders are calling for foundations to reconsider the current power dynamics of the sector. They see huge potential benefits to social impact by empowering the next generation of leaders, collaborating and taking risks, embracing diverse viewpoints, and working with community members to solve problems.
As we work together in the coming years, we have the obligation to help each other see a better and different world, which is the first step in realizing systematic change.