Vikki Spruill Speech to Philanthropy Northwest

May 14, 2013

Good morning!

Thank you, Carol, for that kind introduction. I want to thank you, Mindie, and your team for organizing this gathering. I am glad to be with all of you today.

I joined the Council at an interesting time. Membership associations like ours are examining and questioning the traditional business models within which we all operate. I call this the race for relevance. The external rate of change that is happening around each of us and our organizations is accelerating dramatically—causing us to rethink how we lead, innovate, and advance the common good.

We have less time. Our expectations and definitions of value are changing. The market structures within which we operate have grown more complex. We face generational differences in how we view philanthropy. Competition exists among causes and donors, and technology has changed the way we network and communicate.

We are all faced with the need to evolve, to redesign our organizations in ways that make them more agile and resilient. If we don’t, we face certain irrelevance and in some cases possible extinction.

When the board brought me on, it was apparent that the Council needed to evolve. The mandate given to me was change in order to refocus the Council’s strengths and to ensure the Council remains relevant to our members and ultimately the broader field of philanthropy.

One of the first things we did to fulfill that mandate was ask our members for feedback on how we could serve them better. Loud and clear, we heard that the Council needs to exist. There was no question that our mission to help philanthropic organizations enhance, expand, and sustain their ability to advance the common good still matters.

Our WHY was still relevant! But the HOW needed some work.

For many years the Council, which represents approximately 1,800 diverse foundations, used a more traditional transaction and production-based business model, defining its value as being able to produce a specific service or product 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.

So in 2012 we rolled out a reinvention—a completely new business model—that I call going from Council 1.0 to Council 2.0. The next 18 months is our beta phase. This redesign of our “how” is just beginning and is 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 input from the field, reflecting all the changes our sector is going through.

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.

The philanthropic accomplishments led by charitable organizations 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.

If the Council is to provide the opportunity, leadership, and tools for philanthropic organizations to expand, enhance, and sustain their ability to advance the common good—as our mission clearly states—then we MUST provide our members with the insight, connections, and knowledge to fulfill their mission in our rapidly changing world. How do we balance the needs of individual donors with those of organized philanthropy? How do we best embrace new methods of giving, such as social impact bonds and impact investing? How do we capitalize on the talents and energy of next generation philanthropists? How do we meet the needs of funders in an ever shrinking global marketplace? How do we best advance the common good?

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

We all must learn to take better advantage of the rich network of associations, funder networks, affinity groups, and others that make up our complex philanthropic ecosystem. We are all part of this ecosystem and make up a rich and diverse network, dedicated to the common good. We have just begun to realize our potential.

That is why Council 2.0 will shift its business model from being siloed and transactional—focused on individual types of foundations—to becoming a network hub where strategy, thought leadership, and member stewardship become the hallmark of our work.

As a hub, 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 about connectivity, networking, trend and pattern identification, and leveraging the full talent and capacity of our field and other fields with which we collaborate.

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 members the services they need, such as public policy and advocacy, legal guidance, professional development, and conferences and meetings. We are not. But we are shifting so that our work is better informed by what we gather from the network.

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.

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 all about.

Now, I’d like to explain how we intend to make our network come alive:

First, we have a story to tell: All of us are acutely aware of the fiscal challenges our federal, state, and local governments face. We are even more acutely aware of the additional strain and expectation these challenges are placing on our own organizations. As public resources diminish, public leaders are looking to our sector to fill the gap and yet they have also proposed policies that negatively affect our sector.

What we do matters, and never more so than right now. Unfortunately, however, not enough of our fellow Americans understand the unique and catalytic role you play in driving change and taking risk to address our most pressing problems. According to the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative, only 2 in 10 engaged American can give an example of a foundation’s impact on an issue they care about—even though 8 in 10 engaged Americans think it would be a loss for their community if foundations no longer existed.

Contrast that fact with these:

  • The nonprofit sector generates $1.1 trillion every year in the form of jobs and services.
  • One in 10 U.S. workers is employed by the nonprofit sector, which provides 13.7 million jobs.
  • Employees of nonprofit organizations received roughly 9 percent of wages paid in the U.S., offering $587.7 billion in wages and benefits to its employees.

But our story isn’t just about numbers either. Each of you has countless stories about your work and the lives you and your teams have personally changed because of your efforts. These stories capture more about the essence of philanthropy than numbers ever could. Our sector must tell the story about the critical role we play in society. The Council, as your national association, must and will lead that effort and has done so earnestly in the last few months on your behalf.

Nowhere is a deeper and more thorough understanding of philanthropy needed than among our federal policymakers, which is why public policy and advocacy will remain the Council’s single most important priority. Our sector finds itself in the middle of an intensifying debate about shrinking federal resources and solutions for a more balanced national budget. Drawing revenues from the nonprofit sector is not the answer to our nation’s fiscal problems, and any solution that includes limitations or caps to charitable contributions will have detrimental effects not only to the services philanthropy and the nonprofit sector provide, but also to the fabric of our society that relies heavily on these contributions.

As the national association for philanthropy, the Council is responsible for uniting our field and ensuring that our nation’s leaders understand and appreciate the value of our field, not for us but for the beneficiaries that live in each congressional district and state across this great nation. The responsibility lies with us, however, to ensure that we effectively tell our story, something I believe our field has fallen short of doing in the last two decades. The redesign of the Council is rooted in the urgency our sector must recognize if it hopes to change the perception of our work and impact. The early signs are already emerging.

In March, Kevin Murphy, the chair of the Council’s board of directors and CEO of the Berks County Community Foundation, testified before the House Ways and Means Committee about the importance of the charitable deduction AND the important role of the charitable sector in our society. Kevin was the second witness to testify at this hearing and not once did he mention his foundation’s grantmaking dollar amount. Instead, he made the case about philanthropy’s role with moving stories about the people in his community that would suffer without charitable support from the Berks County Community Foundation.

His testimony opened the door for a series of follow-up meetings where several Council members participated in a Ways and Means working group discussion about the importance of the charitable sector, spending several hours educating congressional staff about our sector’s unique catalytic role. This discussion has already influenced how committee staff members are drafting comprehensive tax reform policy.

In addition, the president’s fiscal year 2014 budget once again included a 28 percent cap on charitable deductions. However, unlike previous budgets, it also included some signals that the administration recognizes our important role in this country’s future.

CLEARLY, OUR EFFORTS ARE PAYING OFF!

Unlike the past though, we aren’t doing this alone. Instead we are partnering with other organizations to share stories and maximize our impact for the benefit of the whole field. Here are a few examples:

  • We are a member of the Charitable Giving Coalition that is made up of over 60 organizations, including the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers, Independent Sector, Philanthropy Roundtable, Catholic Charities, United Way, and many other nonprofit associations. The Chronicle of Philanthropy listed the Charitable Giving Coalition as one of the top five nonprofit organizations to watch in 2013 and named the Council as one of the four strategic leaders of the coalition.
  • We are working directly with the Forum and the regional association network to more effectively advocate philanthropy’s role. In the past, the Council tried to create its own grassroots advocacy. I scrapped that and instead am working with the Forum and its PolicyWorks program, which trains regional association and foundation staff about advocacy and communications. The Council is providing its public policy resources to make these efforts richer, strengthening an existing network instead of duplicating it.

In order for our network to come alive, we need to be more in touch with our members so that we can provide greater value in realizing our mission to advance the common good. Our redesign is, at its core, about member stewardship—providing you with the tools you need to advance the common good.

The Council has created two new categories of positions on our staff. Over the course of the next few years we will have six field staff, called network managers, located in different parts of the country. They will spend their time visiting you and learning more about you and your efforts.

Since my arrival, I’ve heard a lot of feedback that the Council has lost touch with its members and doesn’t fully appreciate their work. I agree. We have become an inward facing organization. To provide excellent member stewardship we must become an externally facing organization and more interactive with each of you.

I haven’t determined the geographic areas for each of these positions yet, and that is on purpose. This too will be an iterative process. Each of these individuals will work closely with Council members, learn about them, and in turn connect them with resources found throughout other networks.

These staff members will also work collaboratively with the regional associations in their areas. I don’t want to duplicate great work already happening. I want the Council to amplify this work for the benefit of the full field. I’m not interested in replacing or competing with regionals. I’m not interested in replacing affinity groups and funder networks. I AM interested in helping our members connect to each other and these other organizations for our collective benefit.

I’m also creating a new network developer position. Whereas the network managers will have responsibility for certain geographic areas of the country and all the Council members in those areas, the network developers will focus on issues and develop or strengthen networks around these issues. Our network developers will build strong partnerships with issue-based funder networks and connect our members to them while also amplifying the work of these networks.

In the past, the Council tried to develop its own expertise in an array of areas and the staff became over-extended or ineffective. In our highly networked world that approach is a waste of time. Instead, these network developers will be experts on the networks focused on these issues so we can connect resources and experts quickly and efficiently from these networks to our members.

For example:

Imagine you are the CEO of a mid-sized foundation in the Northwest United States. For the past 30 years the foundation has focused on economic development and human services in a 10-county area covering roughly 300 miles. You have eight experienced staff members who manage grants and provide leadership development training for the nonprofit community but have little capacity for their own professional development beyond their immediate responsibilities.

Now imagine that after a severe drought, a forest fire erupts and destroys homes, communities, and a considerable portion of the region’s infrastructure. You know the foundation must provide assistance for the disaster recovery and rebuilding effort, but you and your team have almost no experience in this type of grantmaking. You also don’t have much time to seek out experts or information that can help you with these challenges.

Enter Council 2.0. The network managers will have developed a relationship with you and understand your role in your community. Upon hearing the news of the wildfires, he or she would proactively reach out to you to learn more about the situation and immediately begin to assess how the Council and its access to a broad network can help.

Knowing that you and your team need help with disaster grantmaking, the network manager will take action in several areas:

  • He or she will connect with Council teammates across the country and find other foundations with disaster grantmaking experience and connect them to you; you will instantly have a national support group that can help you make decisions without making unnecessary mistakes.
  • He or she will reach out to the regional associations in the area to see if the Council can access its national network to provide additional resources for the regional association staff as they work with funders in the area grappling with the wildfire aftermath.
  • He or she will connect with a network developer peer in DC with connections to a network of private, public, and academic institutions focused on disaster grantmaking to provide you and your fellow community leaders with another layer of assistance that can guide and educate you and your staff.

All of this is happens because as a member of the Council, we have spent time listening to you, understanding your strengths and weaknesses, and navigating networks for you so you spend more time addressing community needs instead of seeking out information and assistance.

But Council 2.0 isn’t just about responsiveness in crisis situations. I also envision our staff proactively reaching out to prepare you ahead of time for unanticipated events and provide you with information and services you may not realize you need yet.

Because of our unique vantage point, we have the ability to identify trends, aggregate data, and synthesize information to provide you with knowledge. In the future, the Council team will know that funders across the country have begun investing more time and energy in mitigating disasters before they happen.

Your network manager, by talking with peers and networks, would know about this and bring this information to you for the benefit of your team. This way, when that wildfire does happen, your team isn’t starting from square one and would have had an opportunity to work with the community to consider mitigation efforts ahead of time.

This is member stewardship. This is relevance.

The Council team will never have extensive expertise in disaster grantmaking, nor should we; there are already great organizations focused on this. The Council will know networks focused in this area and utilize our hub model to connect you to these resources.

Let me leave you with this thought:

What we do matters, and never more so than right now. This is why this redesign is so critical. The impact each of you has in your communities is critical and any time you spend focusing elsewhere is a lost opportunity to advance the common good. I see the Council’s role as a connective hub to ensure we provide you with the opportunity, leadership, and tools you need to spend as much time as possible advancing the common good.

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 one of us, as the network, can—and must—convey this message about philanthropy’s value.