2015 Annual Meeting | April 24-28, 2015 | San Francisco, Ca

Leading Together

Hope and Opportunity in a Destabilized World

Leading Together - Vikki Spruill Opening Remarks at the 2015 Annual Meeting

Welcome to San Francisco! What a way to kick off a conference in such an amazing place!

The Bay Area represents so much to so many. This community has incubated great iconoclasts -- leaders, like Harvey Milk, Clint Eastwood, and Maya Angelou. Some of the leading technology companies on the planet are here shaping how we interface with the world. The natural beauty of this region inspired a world-wide conservation effort, as well as the art of Ansel Adams and so many others.

Haight-Ashbury, Golden Gate Park, Muir Woods, Silicon Valley, and the Castro. These are more than just places on a map. They are sites of invention, movements, and wonder.

If you need inspiration in San Francisco, just look around. It’s everywhere.

This is a place where people start big things. This is a place where people change the world.

Thank you for joining us at this year’s conference! I am thrilled that so many have come from around the world, including more than 19 countries, and as far away as Tanzania and Singapore, to join your colleagues to think big about philanthropy and its potential.

Before anything else, I want to thank those who have contributed your time, energy, and ideas to making this conference possible. Seven working groups have been developing conference programming for over 5 months. A site session committee has been working to incorporate the city‘s character into the conference experience. Our local community foundation colleagues have also lent extraordinary support and expertise. I especially want to thank James Head, Fred Blackwell, and Emmett Carson. The Council’s staff have been burning the midnight oil to ensure that all of you have a world-class experience. I’d like for these conference leaders to stand and be recognized for your service to the field.

I also want to thank the sponsors whose generous support has made all of this possible. In particular, I want to thank our major partners:

  • The Walton Family Foundation
  • The Ford Foundation
  • The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
  • The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation
  • The David and Lucile Packard Foundation
  • The California Endowment

These sponsors have shown extraordinary commitment to our efforts here. Thank you.

With over 100 sessions and events, this conference has been carefully curated to bring forward the best thinking across philanthropy.

Building on its expertise in best practices and new ideas in philanthropy, the Council on Foundations is the very best place for these conversations to occur. We provide an indispensable forum for civil discourse about the issues facing philanthropy and the people it serves. I know you will find what you need to take your work to the next level – whether it’s a new case study, relevant research, or a new colleague who inspires you and also makes you laugh.

With so many choices, it’ll be important to orient yourselves and take time to think about how these sessions and focus areas might impact your work. I want to use my time this morning to help you understand the conceptual framework behind this Annual Meeting and the Council’s commitment to fostering collaborative leadership.


This conference began with a simple idea – one that Kenji Williams just depicted beautifully – our world is changing quickly.

Our world is changing faster than at any time in human history, so we are never on stable ground.

  • According to forecasts by Pearson Education, the next twenty years will see the world’s population reach 8 billion, and for the first time in human history, most won’t live in poverty.
  • The world’s middle class will increase from 1 to 3 billion, and this global middle class will drive unprecedented consumer demand.
  • 60% of the world’s population will live in cities – more than 1.5 billion people than today.
  • Over a billion workers from developing countries will enter the labor market.

Our institutions, technology, politics, and society are shifting, adapting, and morphing so fast that that feeling we all have -- that feeling that there aren’t enough hours in the day -- Well, that feeling is very real.

There just aren’t enough hours in the day to get done what all of us want to achieve.

The challenges we face are downright scary -- water shortages, severe weather, opportunity gaps, persisting inequality, skepticism about bedrock institutions like our justice and political systems.

Undaunted, philanthropy is prepared to take action and to do so with an increasingly collaborative approach.

As a national organization with a global reach, the Council on Foundations has a unique vantage point from which to see the work of philanthropy. Over the course of the next few days, we are focusing on three big topical areas – areas which are experiencing significant disruption and impact us all: (1) Natural Resources and Energy, (2) Civil Society, and (3) Economy and Finance.

I’d like to talk briefly about this programming before speaking about how we will move forward together.

Our first topic, Natural Resources and Energy, makes everything else we do possible. A healthy planet is essential to the strength of our communities.

Whether your organization is prioritizing economic growth, social justice, innovation, or human health, these issues depend on a stable planet. Unfortunately, extreme heat, drought, flooding, sea level rise, and resource scarcity are the new normal.

Our field as a whole must build on the work already being done to address climate change and embrace the need for action now. We must look past the noise to see the very real threat that climate change poses to investments across each and every one of your portfolios.

At the conference, we’re also focusing on a critical element of successful democracies: civil society. The past year has been fraught with moments that caused worry about civil discourse, and rights we consider basic and fundamental are being called into question.

Some welcome developments have emerged around marriage equality and net neutrality, yet Ferguson, the attack on Charlie Hebdo, and an increasingly rancorous political system have revealed destabilizing fears and sparked new tensions.

Now society observes itself in real-time, with online commentary from a chorus of millions. Moments, which in the past may not have been seen, go viral and play out in social media platforms, where everyone gets a say.

The responsibility for a healthy civil society is now a collective one, and philanthropy must do its part.

Finally, we are focusing on the economy. Our economy is growing and creating jobs at the fastest pace since 1999. Our unemployment rate is lower than it was before the financial crisis. Yet, still too many suffer.

We can’t afford to wait for the next crisis to take action.

All of you are in some way looking to make a positive impact on your local economies, whether it is through a better prepared workforce, a new theater, or savvier entrepreneurs. Over the next three days, you will gain insiders’ knowledge of how to jumpstart the economy.

The scale of these challenges may feel daunting, and our capacity to make meaningful impact may feel limited. But together, we can and will create hope and opportunity.


If philanthropy is going to meet the challenges we face, we have no choice but to continue thinking and acting differently. In this destabilized world, the only thing that is clear is that yesterday’s solutions will be inadequate to solve the issues of today and tomorrow. As Albert Einstein so wisely said, “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”

We must show leadership, not just individually, but together, by uniting our talent, our connections, our expertise, and our resources for common purpose. We must lead together in order to create hope and opportunity in this world – a world which faces huge challenges.

So, what do we mean by “Leading Together?” I am hoping that this phrase will lift traditional tired arguments out of the past and into the here and now. In essence, Leading Together allows us to think about an old idea in a new way by uniting two concepts – Leadership and Togetherness.

We often think of leaders as individuals who are providing direction, supervision, and management to others. We think of a leader as a source of inspiration, of guidance, and of achievement. We all exhibit leadership in our own individual way, but for me, leadership requires the formation of a vision for how things might be better. Leaders think beyond what is to what can be.

Togetherness moves us beyond our own personal vision. It’s about looking for common ground. Recognizing that all of us, no matter how much we try, can’t possibly see everything happening around us. The vision of others helps us to see new things and understand large systems. Friendship with colleagues inspires us to look beyond ourselves toward common purpose and collaboration.

We may still honor and respect our own individual visions, but the scale of the issues I just described compel us to reach for something more.

It’s time for us to come together to deliver holistic, well-considered solutions that work to everyone’s advantage. It’s time for us to create partnerships that defy expectations and deliver results. It’s time to unite the best of our own individual thinking with the best of our colleagues and peers. It’s time for foundations of all types to bring knowledge from business, public policy, and the academy to bear on the planet’s most pressing problems.


Growing consistently in its sophistication and ability, philanthropy has access to political and corporate leaders, connections to movers and shakers, and an ability to bring disparate people together through our funding and convening power.

The desire to support our own institutional priorities often strengthens us, but it may also detract from what really matters, our collective impact. Our field spends significant resources on improving the visibility of our own institutional efforts, rather than on leveraging our collective talents. In order to make real progress, we will need to harness our own individual strengths for common purpose.

Let’s share our lessons learned, both good and bad. Let’s share credit among ourselves and with our grantees. Let’s also share accountability in an honest, transparent way. When we embrace these responsibilities, we will strengthen the reputation of philanthropy and build even greater public trust.


Leading Together also requires us to think of the ecosystems in which we work.

I spent over a decade advancing conservation causes, and I focused my efforts on protecting and strengthening a healthy ocean. Like our economy and broader democracy, the ocean is a big and complex system. Our whole wildlife management approach used to be predicated on individual species plans. We would try to save elements of the ocean -- this type of fish here or that type of coral reef there. Remarkably, the environmental movement only really began talking about the whole inter-connected ecosystem just a little more than a decade ago.

I see parallels in philanthropy. I have worked with many leaders who are rightfully proud of their work on certain issues. I hear of a successful program to prevent domestic violence. Another to ensure that veterans get appropriate care. Another that specializes in preparing parents for their responsibilities. We’ve seen these three disparate efforts brought together in veterans support programs with excellent results.

When you bring an ecosystem lens to these disparate initiatives, you begin to think about how we support, and are in turn supported by each other.

We know intellectually that we should be thinking this way, but we often just don’t. Despite what our hearts are telling us, our practical heads are often pushing us toward silos, within our own organization, within our own foundation type, within our own philanthropic field. I have no doubt that all of you are interested in breaking down these silos, but despite our best intentions, we often focus on the individual contributions instead of the ecosystem.

I believe, though, that the solution begins with a mindset shift. If we can all begin to bring an ecosystem mindset to our work, then we will be more likely to look out across the field for colleagues, peers, and partners who can strengthen our own efforts. It is in this spirit that the Council on Foundations is looking out across our membership to help create these synergies.

True collaborative thinking transcends the individual person or institution. While it requires us to give a little extra of ourselves, what we gain is well worth the investment in our programmatic initiatives.

Here in San Francisco, you will see how a number of your colleagues have embraced a collaborative approach.


This concept of Leading Together infuses the whole conference experience. Throughout the next three days, we will be highlighting successful collaborations in the field, while still acknowledging the unique needs of community, family, private, and corporate foundations.

The Council has an important role in helping the field connect and advance. We provide a space to make leadership and togetherness easier, so that you may advance your work and the impact of the field.

Here’s a real time example. In the last 48 hours in response to the tragedy in Nepal, the Council worked with its network of partners to make information and resources available to our members.


And now I’ve brought the point full circle. People and relationships, built on mutual respect and trust, are the real source of change. Institutions are only as strong as the people who animate them. If we emphasize impact and build partnerships, we will be so much more than the sum of our parts.

The goal of this conference is nothing short of paradigm shift in the way we think of the philanthropic community and our own individual roles within it. In closing, I see four major principles at play in “Leading Together:”

  • First, think about issues, not institutions.
  • Second, share; share the journey; share ideas; share accountability; share the failures and credit where it is due.
  • Third, shift our mindset to think of the ecosystems -- or the context -- within which we work.
  • And, lastly, remember that collaboration is more than a division of labor; it is a partnership where the whole truly can be greater than the sum of its parts.

The aspirations for our field to Lead Together are not new or difficult to grasp, but the impact of collaboration couldn’t possibly be greater during this time of urgency and change.

So, thank you. Thank you for being here. Thank you for being here to learn. Thank you for being here, as we Lead Together.