The power to think. The power to engage. The power to build.
More than 700 community foundation leaders gathered October 4-7, 2009, in San Antonio to explore the power of community foundations to lead in these transformative times.
Over the course of the 2009 Fall Conference for Community Foundations, philanthropy’s roles in public policy, partnerships with government, and emerging issues in community development were probed by a “unique constituency of thinkers,” as Donnell Mersereau, the community foundations director of the Council of Michigan Foundations, described those gathered.
From a historic keynote speech by U.S. Secretary for Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan on the first day to an engaging conversation with the Community Foundations Leadership Team on the closing day, the dynamic force of community foundations to propel our communities through these challenging times was amplified.
This wasn’t a speak-and-run event. Deep involvement by public officials was a hallmark of this fall conference sponsored by the Council on Foundations (COF).
“One striking difference between this conference and the previous ones is the public officials who came to participate in deep and meaningful ways,” Nina Smart, of The Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovation in San Diego, reflected in the conference blog. “Instead of posing for photographs and leaving, mayors and lieutenant governors stayed as partners. It’s just plain exciting to see a mayor like Jay Williams from Youngstown, Ohio, articulate the power of collaboration across the government, philanthropic, and business sectors…or to hear Lt. Governor Diane Denish of New Mexico discuss creating an Office of Philanthropy.”
COF Director of Board Relations Will Heaton observed that as he moved about the conference “foundation leaders, mayors, and other public officials were engrossed in several earnest conversations about the best ways to meld philanthropy’s innovation with the work of the government.” Heaton also noted that G. Edward DeSeve, senior advisor to President Obama and the Office of Management and Budget for Recovery Act implementation, gave out his office number and e-mail to the entire crowd. “How much more sincere can you get!” Heaton said.
Now is the time for a new “social innovation” model of collaboration between government and philanthropic sectors, Secretary Donovan urged in his keynote address. Donovan reached out to foundations in a way the federal government has not done before—and in ways supportive of the Council’s own Public-Philanthropic Partnership Initiative
Foundations, Secretary Donovan said, can provide essential research and data on their communities, can use their position to convene stakeholders, and can “break through silos” by connecting people, institutions, and ideas. Secretary Donovan also said foundations play a special role in catalyzing innovation.
“The truth is foundations can test new ideas that government couldn’t on its own…You bring speed and take risks government can’t—or won’t.” Those risks often influence public policy down the road. Read the full text of Secretary Donovan’s speech.
“It was inspiring to hear our partners at the federal level remind us of the power we have to be agents of transformation in ways that are not always connected to the grants we make,” said Salin Geevarghese, a senior associate at The Annie E. Casey Foundation. Geevarghese currently is involved with the Green and Healthy Homes Initiative (GHHI) in pilot sites around the country. Secretary Donovan pledged $1 million support for 10 cities participating in GHHI, an unfolding public-private-philanthropic partnership to create a holistic approach to healthy housing.
DeSeve laid out the challenges of spending $750 billion in Recovery Act funds both quickly and effectively. He stressed that recovery is “all local,” which Paul Major, president and CEO of The Telluride Foundation, heard as “a call to action for community foundations.”
From the acute economic crisis to chronic ailments in the education system, community foundations are grappling directly with deep needs. Conference sessions offered opportunities to share perspectives, debate issues, and learn about new strategies.
Fast-emerging issues around technology and the environment were examined and partnerships in job development, homelessness, information needs and foreclosure prevention were showcased.
Ben Hecht, president of Living Cities, and Ronald Richard, president of The Cleveland Foundation, joined the mayors of San Antonio and Philadelphia to share perspectives on how partnerships with foundations are playing a role in economic recovery in their cities. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, for example, partnered with Living Cities to work directly in urban neighborhoods and added a director of philanthropic relations in his administration.
To illustrate how community foundations are on the front lines in communities, Council President and CEO Steve Gunderson shared a poignant personal story of a family member’s struggle with drug addiction. Community foundations are key supporters of prevention and treatment programs. The session sparked vigorous conversation that spilled into the hallways afterward.
The Council sought to stimulate engaging and inclusive discussions that examined issues from different perspectives. The panel, "Responding to the Economic Crisis: How Cities and Philanthropy are Creating Jobs and Putting People Back to Work," brought together foundation leaders, an economist, a state labor department director, and a deputy mayor of a mid-size city for a high-energy discussion on the role of community foundations in developing the local workforce.
“What became clear,” said Leslie Dunford, vice president for corporate governance and administration at The Cleveland Foundation, “was that there has definitely been a shift in the way philanthropies and governments approach economic development.” She cited examples from the panel such as the collaborative effort in Phoenix to put an Arizona State campus downtown that exemplified the power of new public-philanthropic-business partnerships.
Education needs from cradle to career were confronted, beginning with a plenary session on education reform. “Learning about the intractable challenges in education today made for a powerful and sobering session,” said Council President Gunderson. “Marguerite Kondracke, president and CEO of America’s Promise Alliance, pointed out that 7,200 children drop out of high school every day in America. Wow.” Download audio from this session.
At The Emerging Green City plenary, participants learned about a variety of initiatives cities are undertaking to protect and improve the environment, including one that produced $3 million for Seattle in only a year. Progress reports were offered on The Green and Healthy Homes Initiative over three sessions, examining the federal response, philanthropic response and early lessons.
Leveraging technology to improve communities and increase access to information was the focus of a plenary session, followed by several break-out sessions examining specific case studies from Milledgeville, Ga., Akron, Ohio, and Miami, Fla. of community foundation work to bridge the digital divide.
Recognizing that many foundations look to the Council for guidance on operational challenges, a number of sessions sought to help members be efficient, effective, and current. "Bear Market Challenges to Endowment Management," a legislative update, and the "The Nuts and Bolts of National Standards" were among the sessions that allowed members to learn and share strategies. Learning labs were offered on such topics as IRS audits, using data for innovation, and the 2010 census.
Of course, much was learned through informal exchanges among participants at the opening reception at The Alamo and during meals and breaks. The opportunity to exchange ideas, share problems and solutions, and challenge fellow foundation colleagues is a powerful one. As Dunford of The Cleveland Foundation noted, conference participants were in San Antonio “because we believe in the work we do and we thirst for new ideas to help us along the way.”