Vision & Action

Philanthropy's Critical Moment for Vision & Action

Vikki Spruill – President and CEO, Council on Foundations
Remarks Delivered at Council on Foundations 2013 Annual Conference in Chicago, IL
April 8, 2013

Good morning! I’m delighted to see each of you here at the Council on Foundations’ 2013 Annual Conference. I hope you enjoyed our first day together!

First off, I’d like to offer a round of applause for the team that has put together this important conference. I especially want to thank Caren Yanis, who has led our Conference Task Force this past year. Caren has been a true partner with me and our conference team and I am forever grateful to her for her patience and leadership. And thank you to the Volunteer Task Force, the Council staff and our conference management specialists.

I do want to take a moment to recognize one of our colleagues who is here with us. Phil Hallen is the President Emeritus of the Falk Foundation. Phil, would you please stand. And, would the rest of you join me in recognizing Phil for attending his 50th (5-0) consecutive Council on Foundations Annual Conferences. Phil, you deserve a special medal of honor.

I want to start with a story. You may have heard it before. Russell Conwell was a motivational speaker at the turn of the 20th century. And, he was more—an officer in the Civil War; the founder of Temple University and of the hospital; a lawyer; minister; an author and an orator. He had a speech called “Acres of Diamonds” that he allegedly delivered six thousand times.

The speech began with a story about an ancient Arab—Ali Hafed —who longed to be rich. Ali Hafed wanted to find a diamond mine so that he could influence the world with his riches. He sought out a holy man to ask him where he could find diamonds, and the holy man told him he would find them where a river runs through white sands between black mountains. Ali Hafed sold his farm and went in search of diamonds. He looked everywhere but in vain, and he died alone and poor.

Meanwhile, the man who’d bought his farm was watering his camel in the front yard, in a little stream that ran through white sands. There he noticed a black rock with an unusual sparkle, which he picked up. When that same holy man came by and noticed the rock, he exclaimed, “Where did you find that diamond?” For it turns out that Ali Hafed had been living in a field of diamonds all along and never realized the wealth surrounding him.

We in this room are all a bit like Ali Hafed. Because we are surrounded by incredible riches. I’ll show them to you: Just look around. It’s the other people in this room. And it’s a great many other people too, you can’t see right now. You are a lucky human being—not only because of the material resources you have, but because of the vast network that surrounds you, a fraction of which is in this room. It’s an incredible network dedicated to the common good, the amazing potential of which we are just beginning to realize.

That’s the network you are part of as a member of the Council on Foundations.

Now, to realize the great riches of this network, you’ll have to do more than take your camel for a walk in the front yard. You’ll need to engage and participate in ways I’m going to discuss with you now. As surely as Ali Hafed was surrounded by power and wealth, which he never realized was within his grasp, you too are no further from stunning new levels of impact and influence than the person sitting next to you.

So, the question for the Council is – how can we best maximize this potential? As you know, the Council has been undergoing a transformation. When I joined the Council last July, the mandate given to me was change—change in order to refocus the Council’s strengths and to ensure the Council remains relevant to you, our members.

One of the first things we did to fulfill that mandate was ask you for your feedback on how we could serve you better. Loud and clear, you said that the Council needs to exist. There was no question among you that our mission to help philanthropic organizations enhance, expand, and sustain their ability / meaning the ability of all of you in this room—to advance the common good / still matters.

So our “why” remains relevant. But our “how” needed more attention.

Not unlike many other membership associations, we failed to stay abreast of the change that unfolded around us; we stuck to a more traditional, transaction based model, in which the Council defined its value as being able to produce a specific service to a specific kind of member – a little like a vending machine. We lost sight of the essence of our mission, which is to support our members in advancing the overall philanthropic sector with strategy and thought leadership.

When the Board invited me to join the Council last July, it was with the mandate to challenge that traditional model. In 2012, as you know, the Council rolled out a re-invention that I call going from Council 1.0 to Council 2.0. That redesign of our “how” has only just begun. In fact, it’s still very much underway by design. This is not a “fix-it-and-be-done” effort. We purposefully want this redesign to be an iterative, fluid process that evolves over time—with your input, reflecting all the changes you’re going through, emerging and adapting.

If that sounds dynamic and uncomfortable and constantly changing—you are correct. Because I think what the Council is going through in re-defining its role within philanthropy correlates exactly with how philanthropy needs to be redefining its position in society.

We are, in other words, a microcosm for a much bigger process happening all around us.

Let me explain. We live in times of unprecedented change. Society is in transition, the economy is in transition, the climate is in transition—virtually nothing on the planet is holding still any more. And it’s changing so fast. Why? The forces of change have been magnified. The flow of information, the imperatives of the marketplace—everything is amplified.

Processes that used to take months now take weeks; things that used to take weeks now take a day. And we are all learning to adapt to such change—to respond instantly to cues from our world. Is constant change unsettling? It is. But it’s also a necessary reality.

What about philanthropy? In our sector, there are many examples of dynamic innovation. Yet overall, as a field, we are not evolving as rapidly as we must in order to keep pace with change. Our mode of thinking is still largely influenced by an ideal that took shape one hundred years ago, with the development of organized philanthropy.

The philanthropic accomplishments led by charitable foundations have been phenomenal. Yet we are sometimes constrained by old ways of thinking about philanthropy. My concern is that we are missing opportunities for advancing the common good. It is for these reasons that I say: This is philanthropy’s critical moment.

It is our critical moment because Americans, and in many cases our global neighbors, don’t understand the vital contribution philanthropy makes in collaboration with the broader charitable sector, and they must.

It is our critical moment because crucial social issues we resolved to take part in solving are going unfixed, and our communities pay the price.

It is our critical moment because the social compact that gives so many organizations their lifeblood through charitable contributions is  being seriously challenged.

It is our critical moment because we must embrace new philanthropic approaches that are emerging, or risk becoming less relevant in a changing world.

It is our critical moment because the world needs solutions and the challenges grow greater by the moment.

That is why we are here.

We want the next generation to say, long after we are gone, that – if the first 100 years of philanthropy were impressive, the next 100 years were even greater. We want to be their inspiration because we raised the bar so high.

To do all that, we have to think differently about how we are going to work with each other and with the public and private sectors.

Going forward, partnerships across our sector and other sectors – not individual transactions – will be at the core of the Council’s work. Gone are the days of one-off projects relevant to a single situation or organization.

The new Council is a vital point of connection in a vast network that takes its value from relationships, shared information and critical mass.
Albert Laszlo, the author of Linked: The New Science of Networks says this:

“Most events and phenomena are connected, caused by, and interacting with a huge number of other pieces of a complex universal puzzle.”

Lazlo adds, “We have come to see that we live in a small world, where everything is linked to everything else.”

In my work prior to joining the Council last summer, I spent more than 15 years focused on environmental conservation. If there’s anything that experience taught me, it’s that we live in a world – a vast ecosystem – in which everything is linked and connected to everything else.

And that’s what the new Council is about – connectivity, networking, trend and pattern identification, and leveraging the full talent and capacity of our field and other fields with which we collaborate.
In this new role for the Council – as a hub within a larger philanthropic network – the Council will nurture a web of relationships. That web includes not just Council members, but also connections with government, business, academia, social service agencies, and more.

Given our unique vantage point to look across the entire country and globe, we can recognize emerging trends and commonalities, connect people, and provide you with an avenue of continued collaboration across these different entities.

Please don’t think, though, that the Council is abandoning its core work of giving our members the certain services you need, such as public policy and advocacy, legal guidance, professional development, and conferences and meetings. We are not. But we are shifting how our work is informed.

The exciting part is that we are uniquely equipped to facilitate this approach. Our vantage point as the national association representing a diverse array of domestic and global funders gives us a very powerful perspective and great influence.

Please understand, though:  The power and influence is not so much a reflection of our power at the Council. It is a reflection of your power. Because you are the network. The key to unlocking philanthropy’s power for the next 100 years is sitting in this room. Technology guru,  David Weinberger, has said, “The smartest person in the room is no longer a person but the room itself.” The trick today is to pull together the resources of the room. That’s what Council 2.0 is about.

And, that is why this is a critical moment for philanthropy. That is why this is a pivotal conference.

There is big work for all of us to do in the world but it won’t get done by staying who we’ve been.

What we do matters, and never more so than right now.

We must communicate philanthropy’s value in a way that transforms a general lack of awareness into a great appreciation and understanding of the impact we have together. And, you, me and each one of us -- as the network -- are the ambassadors who can and need to convey this message about philanthropy’s value.

Let me close with an example of the role of ambassador.

A few weeks ago, we asked Kevin Murphy, the Chair of the Council on Foundations’ Board of Directors and the president of the Berks County Community Foundation, to represent us and provide testimony before the House Ways and Means Committee on tax reform and charitable contributions.
I want to show you a short video clip of Kevin’s testimony. You’ll see how Kevin models the ambassador role...a role we each must play as champions of philanthropy.

Thank you Kevin Murphy.

The Council on Foundations is committed to contributing to an ecosystem for you in which philanthropy’s work thrives. We need each one of you with us. You are the ones on the ground everywhere—caring—juggling—stretching resources—making social impact happen – and the New Council will be right there with you.

So let’s use this time we have together well. Let’s turn our collective visions into action, together.

The Council on Foundations is a national nonprofit association of more than 1,700 grantmaking foundations and corporations. As the leading advocate for philanthropy, we strive to increase the effectiveness, stewardship, and accountability of our sector while providing our members with the services and support they need to advance the common good.