Blog: Amplify

Learning from our Peers: Fusion Family Foundation Conference

I had the privilege this week to join my first Council on Foundations Family Philanthropy Conference. It was a remarkable gathering of some 600 philanthropic leaders and advisers from across the U.S. and international Foundations. The program and various highlights are detailed on the conference website.

As a newcomer to the Council on Foundations, I was pleased to see a deliberate emphasis on peer-to-peer learning. Sessions were designed to share knowledge and experience at multiple levels – newcomers to philanthropy were as equally engaged as those with decades of experience. In my past experience with science conferences and other forms of knowledge exchange, such “learning elasticity” is relatively uncommon. There are many valuable clues in the conference program that organizers of diverse conferences could borrow from, including creating forums for different types of participants to meet.

There were two particular highlights of the conference relevant to Alaska. The first was an inspirational breakfast plenary address by nationally recognized educator Ron Clark. Clark is founder of The Ron Clark Academy, a “model school” in Atlanta, GA. A former American Teacher of the Year, Clark shared his experiences teaching in New York City (which were also the subject of The Ron Clark Story, a film starring Matthew Perry). He bought a group of 20 students to the conference with him and together they explained how his academy uses a variety of exciting, creative, and engaging strategies to raise student test scores and trains teachers to help students of all levels achieve great success.

The second highlight was a closing plenary on “The Changing Face of Family Philanthropy: A Conversation on How Cultures, Nationalities, and Communities Are Making a Difference.” Speakers included Alonzo Mourning, the NBA basketball star who started a charity that bears his name, and his wife, Tracy Mourning; Carmen Castellano, president of the Castellano Family Foundation; Ruth Cummings, trustee of the Nathan Cummings Foundation; and Jaimie Mayer Phinney, associate at the Cummings fund. These are very diverse philanthropists and yet each shared a compelling story of how they came to philanthropy and what they are seeking to accomplish. I was particularly struck with the story of Carmen Castellano whose Foundation is funded from the California lottery winnings that she and her husband shared. They now support a diverse range of Hispanic artists in the Silicon Valley area. Despite the very different ways that all three groups came into philanthropy, they share much in common, including a very fundamental commitment to service. Anyone with an interest in philanthropy at any level would be well advised to order a copy of their discussion.

I’d be happy to share observations and materials from the conference with anyone interested – clearly family philanthropy is an increasingly important cornerstone of social investment across the country. Conferences such as this one provide a tremendous vehicle for enabling good ideas to be shared and leveraged and for helping all philanthropists avoid “reinventing the wheel.”

Ian Dutton is vice president at the Rasmuson Foundation, a member of the Council on Foundations. This post originally appeared on the Rasmuson Foundation blog: Reflect. Share.

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