Philanthropy's Critical Moment

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Posted Date : November 14, 2013

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Russell Conwell was a motivational speaker at the turn of the 20th century who had a famous talk called “Acres of Diamonds” that he allegedly delivered 6,000 times. The talk began with a story about an ancient Arab—Ali Hafed—who longed to find a diamond mine so that he could influence the world with his riches. When he asked a holy man where he could find diamonds, 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 these diamonds, but in vain: He died alone and poor.

Meanwhile, the man who’d bought his farm was watering his camel one day 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 the Council on Foundations are a bit like Ali Hafed—surrounded by incredible riches without realizing it. Those riches are the other people in our network dedicated to the common good, the amazing potential of which we are just beginning to realize.

The question for the Council is: How can we best maximize this potential?

When the board invited me to join the Council last July, it was with the mandate that we change our traditional mode of service. We had failed to stay abreast of change and were stuck in a traditional, transaction-based model that no longer served us. In 2012, we rolled out a reinvention that I call going from Council 1.0 to Council 2.0. That redesign is still very much underway because we want this process to evolve with you, reflecting all the changes you’re going through.

What’s interesting is that the process the Council is going through in redefining its role within philanthropy is a microcosm for a much bigger process happening all around us in which philanthropy is redefining its role within society.

We live in times of unprecedented change, where innovations are happening faster than ever. Philanthropy is also undergoing dynamic change. Still, 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 100 years ago, with the development of organized philanthropy.

Don’t misunderstand me: The accomplishments led by charitable foundations have been phenomenal. Yet I’m concerned we are missing opportunities for advancing the common good because we’re constrained by old ways of thinking and operating. That’s why I say: This is philanthropy’s critical moment.

It is our critical moment because so many 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.

We want the next generation to say: If you think the first 100 years of philanthropy were impressive, the next 100 years were even greater.

For that to happen, though, we have to think differently about how we are going to work with each other and with the public and private sectors. Gone are the days of one-off transactions. Going forward, partnerships across our sector and other sectors will be at the core of the Council’s work. The new Council will be 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 as a hub within a larger philanthropic network, we will nurture a web of relationships—not just among Council members, but also with government, business, academia, social service agencies, and more.

We are not abandoning our core work of providing such services as public policy and advocacy, legal guidance, professional development, and conferences and meetings. But we are shifting how our work is informed. We have a unique vantage point for recognizing emerging trends and commonalities, connecting people, and providing you with an avenue of continued collaboration across these different entities, and we want to leverage that perspective.

Please understand, though: The reach and influence of the new Council is not so much a reflection of our power as it is a reflection of your power. You are the network—and that makes you the key to unlocking philanthropy’s power for the next 100 years.

That’s why this is a critical moment for philanthropy. 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. 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. Each of us can and must convey this message about philanthropy’s value. You are the ones on the ground everywhere—caring, juggling, stretching resources, making social impact happen. We need each one of you with us, being ambassadors for the power of philanthropy. You can turn vision into action—and the new Council will be right there with you.

Vikki Spruill is president and CEO of the Council on Foundations. This blog was excerpted from her speech at last week’s Annual Conference.

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