Blog: Amplify

Relevance + Networking + Speed = Impact

It’s no accident that the Council on Foundations 2013 Family Philanthropy Conference takes place this week in Silicon Valley. This is Ground Zero for technological innovation. Ideas birthed here have changed—and continue to change—the world.

Silicon Valley has been the workshop of some brilliant entrepreneurs. People like Steve Jobs, William Hewlett, David Packard, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, and the founders of Google—Larry Page and Sergey Brin—their amazing work sparked a revolution.

These Silicon Valley visionaries had a sense of urgency and focus. They intended impactful results. They took many incremental, calculated risks, or “little bets,” learned from their mistakes, and course-corrected. They failed their way to success, and there’s a lot to learn from them.

The relationship between technological innovation and philanthropy is compelling. What is philanthropy, if not a series of bets on the future? What is philanthropy, if not social entrepreneurship? Philanthropy doesn’t wait for the one big solution to all the world’s ills before digging in. It grabs on where it can and tries to move the marker forward, even a little.

Philanthropy knows risk, too. Every time we back a cause we care about, we are taking a calculated risk that we can improve the human condition.

In the true spirit of innovation and calculated risk, last fall we rolled out a major revisioning of the Council on Foundations, which was designed to ensure the Council’s relevance and refocus its strengths. That work is still very much underway and it has great import for this conference, for the philanthropic year ahead, and for the work each of you do.

The global pace of change has become blistering fast—and is getting faster. In the digital era we drink from a data fire hose. Businesses measure impact daily, even hourly. We demand quick turnarounds. Today’s marketplace rewards speed, responsiveness, improvisation, and iteration.

When I joined the Council last July, the Council wasn’t working at this pace. We needed to reimagine our organization to provide value not available anywhere else—go from Council 1.0 to Council 2.0.

The Council is going from being a transaction-based service organization to a relationship-based service organization focused on thought leadership and member stewardship. To borrow an image from IT, we are moving from being a terminus—a place to come to “get things”—to a central hub within a large network, a point of connection.

Let me give you some examples.

Last year, Superstorm Sandy devastated the Eastern seaboard. Under the old model, the Council would have pulled together some internal staff and provided members with the best information we had. By contrast, the new Council gathered people and organizations that had badly needed special expertise—knowledge of the community, of the locale, of disaster grantmaking—and connected them with Council members. We gave our members access to real-time, relevant data that kept them informed—and we did it fast

When the horrific event in Newtown, Connecticut, unfolded in December, the new Council hosted a call within the week following this tragic incident with the community foundation that serves Newtown, plus regional colleagues, experts, and local officials. We connected them with other foundations that have experienced tragedies of their own, to share best practices for healing a community. We compiled a vetted inventory of philanthropic efforts in the area of gun control and shared it. Members got info they needed to better serve a traumatized community. New relationships were fostered and issue networks were strengthened. Subsequently, the White House invited the Council to help generate ideas to solve the systemic problems associated with gun violence.

So, here’s a formula to consider: Relevance + networking + speed = impact.

Historically, we’ve defined our value to you as the ability to provide a specific service to a specific member—functional, but not always forward thinking or strategic or cost effective. We are not abandoning our work of providing the programs and services, but we are shifting how it happens. We will be agile, nimble, and networked.

This week we are in Silicon Valley to underscore this concept of systems thinking and how systems sustain us. As author Peter Senge has said, “Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static “snapshots”—for [understanding] the subtle interconnectedness that gives living things their unique character.”

When we fail to leverage our “subtle interconnectedness” we overlook our huge influence upon each other. When we think and work in organizational and intellectual silos instead of fluid networks, we miss crucial opportunities to alter the social ecosystem in which we live for the better.

At a time of chronic economic challenges and growing need, we cannot miss those opportunities.

While most Americans don’t understand what philanthropy is all about, they sense their communities would be worse places to live if philanthropy no longer existed. We must educate citizens and lawmakers about how philanthropy works as part of the larger system. We must tell the story of philanthropy’s vital role in community life as creators of hope and possibilities. In order to do this, we need your help, your heart, your hard work, and your willingness to risk. Your experience brings a richness and truth to our national dialogue.

Let’s work together to define our interrelatedness. Share what the cutting edge is for your foundation, so we can connect you to others leading on that edge. I cannot think of more exciting or rewarding work to do together.

Vikki Spruill is president and CEO of the Council on Foundations. This blog was excerpted from her remarks at the 2013 Family Philanthropy Conference in San Jose.

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