Vikki Spruill Remarks on the State of American Philanthropy

Sunday, June 8, 2014
Washington, DC

Thank you, Good afternoon. I think we all have a thing or two to learn from amazing students like these. 

I’m grateful to Gwen and the News Literacy Project for an enlightening discussion and for joining us here today. And, thanks to all of you for joining us at the 2014 Annual Conference of the Council on Foundations: Philanthropy Exchange!

Many of you have traveled a long way to be with us. We have leaders from as far away as Anchorage and Australia, from Baton Rouge to Tanzania.

I am especially grateful to the Conference Advisory Group, and Co-Chair Kevin Murphy, the Council’s board of directors, our staff, and the volunteers who helped make this conference possible. Please stand and be recognized for making our few days together an exhilarating experience.

As we set out to plan this conference, together with our Advisory Group, we dug deep into some of the biggest issues facing our field – environment, poverty, health, education and democratic practice - and challenged ourselves to tackle a timely and difficult theme: philanthropy’s role in bridging divides that separate us and diminish our impact.

Today, you’ve already heard discussions of some major historic, geographic, and social fractures. Political polarization, gender bias, racial discrimination, income inequality, metropolitan and rural divides, and a host of other social dynamics must be broadly recognized before they can be addressed.

And yet, within this fractured world, philanthropy plays a major role in mobilizing resources and demonstrating leadership to build a more prosperous, fair-minded, and just world. Said another way by Angela Glover Blackwell, “Philanthropy is at the crossroads of opportunity.”

As you set out to do this important work, the Council is here to help you achieve your goals.  In some cases, that means providing support to individual members and member types who have the vision to blaze new trails. But we also believe strongly in working together to increase our impact.

At tomorrow’s Member Meeting, I will speak in detail about the “State of the Council” and our role moving the field forward with you. Success requires both individual and collective action, and the bigger the challenge, the greater the need for collaboration.

Foundations, of course, reflect the communities, the companies, the families, and the individuals that created them. It makes perfect sense, then, that fractures in the wider world translate into fractures in our own philanthropic community. 

We often think about ourselves as leaders of community foundations, private foundations, family foundations, or corporate foundations. My charge to you today – and for the rest of this conference – is to think about your work in the context of a larger whole.  

How can we organize around shared passions, rather than divide by structural type? Yes, we represent organizations with different tax code and statute categories.  These differences matter as we carry out our day-to-day work and as we wrestle with tax policy.

But in these fractured times, when so many challenges face us, when government dollars are more scarce, and when we’re asked to solve huge problems, I challenge us all to focus on how together we serve as catalysts for change; how together we leverage ideas, resources, and sweat equity; how together we bring people into accord; how together we protect and defend those who are not able to raise a voice; and how together we bridge divides in our communities.

These expectations are central to who we are and what we do. They guide our future as they have shaped our past. The public, lawmakers, grantees – folks expect a lot of us. I know the weight of those expectations. It can make you feel like you need to solve the world’s problems or need to be Wonder Woman. Those expectations lead all of us to try to do so much.

In my own ocean conservation work before the Council, I knew in my head that the future of our planet depends on a vibrant and healthy ocean. Because the ocean provides the oxygen to support every breath and food for billions on earth, it was crystal clear to me why everyone should care and do what they could to address the issue.

We had many meetings on the science, on public opinion, and the politics, and we made some heartening progress. But you’ve no doubt had those certain moments that really stick in your mind.

I wanted to underscore how every individual’s actions can support this vital ocean ecosystem, so I used to lead river and coastal cleanups. We brought together community groups, nonprofits, and government officials to amplify impact, then we rolled up our sleeves and did the work. One of our annual cleanups was a blast; the Jonas brothers joined us and the work seemed cool, especially to my then teenage daughters.

Another year, I spent six hours wading through the mud of the Anacostia River, picking up medical syringes and condoms, and hauling tires out of the water. It was pouring rain the entire time. That was one of those days that I’m sure many of you have had you just feel exasperated; you wonder if your own effort even matters.

Each of us, even on our days of frustration and exasperation, know that individual actions matter. As leaders, your actions impact your team, they impact your organization, and they impact the field. Every day, I hear amazing stories of individuals in philanthropy who are trying to tackle big problems one step at a time. This is where the Council can help!

We believe strongly in providing you the connections to colleagues, who understand your efforts and have felt your frustrations before. You can share ideas, tools, frameworks, research, and a few laughs. You can align around big problems.

I came to the Council because I want this organization to help you leverage your talents and resources for greater impact. Philanthropy is filled with stories of leaders who have stood outside the mainstream – and sometimes in the actual stream – to agitate for social changes, and confronted daunting challenges with innovative ideas.

While philanthropy’s desire to advance society endures, we are confronting a new reality. Not only are we facing polarization and political gridlock, but we’re doing so during a time of economic anxiety and technological disruptions. These factors have already upended other industries, and they are also taking root in philanthropy.

Philanthropy is changing. Incorporating new technology, creative strategies, or alternate business structures, new forms of giving will continue to transform our field’s future, whether we want or even like the changes before us.

But these changes yield powerful new opportunities. Philanthropy is at the crossroads of opportunity!

Here’s a recent example of which I’m particularly proud: four foundations — Blue Shield of California Foundation, the Bristol-Myers Squibb Foundation, the Lincoln Community Foundation, and the Robert R. McCormick Foundation — brought together more than 30 of their peers to pledge over $170 million dollars in support for veterans and military families.

But they also recognized that money alone cannot fully address this critical national priority. So they built stronger partnerships with the White House, veterans’ support organizations, the Red Cross, and the V.A. to make sure that a variety of stakeholders were focusing on the same goals. As part of a collective effort to create a community of funders and build momentum, the Council launched the Veterans Philanthropy Exchange – a new community that brings together that support for military families.

We were especially humbled that First Lady Michelle Obama joined us for the launch of this significant initiative and recognized the importance of foundations coming together to focus on impact. The Veterans Philanthropy Exchange is part of a larger effort we are undertaking to connect our members online.

This week, we are opening our new online platform – the Philanthropy Exchange – first to you, our members, so that you can expand on the conversations begun during the conference. You are entering the Exchange on the ground floor, and I hope that you will co-design this platform with us by providing advice and feedback about how it can more effectively serve your needs.

The Philanthropy Exchange idea is one of sharing and collaboration, and the Council is carrying this idea through large gatherings like this one, smaller gatherings throughout the year, as well as the virtual communities which I just described. I hope you'll visit the interactive lab on the Terrace Level to explore the platform firsthand.

As we gather in our nation’s capital, we must also think about how we can ensure that policymakers see philanthropy’s value for our country and the wider world.  We cannot lose sight of the fact that comprehensive tax reform could very well transform our own “state of philanthropy” if we are not actively – even aggressively –shaping our tax policy in ways that enhance civil society.

Recent proposals have sent clear signals that our lawmakers seriously question the ways in which we operate, the value of endowed philanthropy, and the opportunities for donors to invest in big ideas.

The Council is deeply engaged in this dialogue at all levels. Your stories, your letters, your meetings, and your participation lift up the transformative role of foundations in society. This kind of engagement helps advance strategies that will enhance – not limit – the future of philanthropy. There is no better example of where we need to come together – not divide – to ensure the best possible future for our field. 

While the divides we face are stark, our society and our field have overcome far greater fractures. Philanthropy unites individuals to advance the common good. This spirit has bridged some of our greatest gulfs.

When bold men and women dared to confront history’s intractable problems, they were not shaken by the scale of their challenges. In light of her recent passing, I want to close with the beautiful words of Dr. Maya Angelou; she wrote, “you may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.

This conference focuses on big obstacles. We won’t surmount them all in a single stride. We will, at times, fail and our efforts will fall flat. But with the first step, we show the measure of our worth. By accepting what failures might come, we set ourselves up for the greatest of successes. Thank you for being here today, and thank you for joining us on this journey.