Message from Vikki Spruill on network strategy

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Dear Colleagues,

I hope you are finding our recent series of membership updates helpful in understanding our vision for building a Council that works well for our members and advances the sector. This week, I am focusing on our network strategy. I hope that by describing some of the issues that faced our previous organizational model, you can better understand why the Council needed to shift its thinking.

To create a sustainable and agile organization, we needed more than just a tweak to the old formula. For the benefit of both our sector and society, we required a fundamental shift that would truly harness the power of networks and build meaningful collaboration among members and leaders in the field.

Not unlike many associations, the Council failed to stay abreast of the change unfolding around us. For many years the Council has followed a more traditional, transaction-based model, in which we defined our value by our ability to produce a specific service 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. To reorient ourselves required a significant shift and the consistent input of our members. This process of change is still underway, but I hope that you will continue to engage with us and provide helpful feedback and criticism, so we can consistently refine our approach.

If philanthropy is to develop with the times and achieve audacious goals, we must adopt a new paradigm—one that focuses, first and foremost, on building a new definition of collaboration across the sector. To rethink our underlying methodologies, I've worked with our board, our members, colleagues in the field, experts in organizational dynamics, and our staff to reconfigure the Council. We are coalescing on a whole new level as an organization. The Council is increasingly able to weave networks of leaders and organizations, and our capacity is building every day, as we find the right people to fill key roles. We are becoming a connective node—an entity that facilitates connections within networks not only in the philanthropic sector but also the public and private sectors.

In the best networks, all nodes – points of intersection – are closely connected and communicate regularly. The larger the network, though, the more challenging this becomes. That's why the core of the Council's network strategy is to facilitate, to the highest degree, the free flow of information and innovation across sector networks for maximum collaboration towards positive social change. The more we collectively operate as a part of a holistic philanthropic network, the closer we will come to working together to create a just and globally prosperous society.

Simon Mainwaring captures the essence behind the Council on Foundations' network strategy best in this quote:

"We need to develop and disseminate an entirely new paradigm and practice of collaboration that supersedes the traditional silos that have divided governments, philanthropies and private enterprises for decades and replace it with networks of partnerships working together to create a globally prosperous society."

~Simon Mainwaring, social media expert

Our Network Strategy in Action

"The Guide" is a model for tapping the power of the network for the benefit of the field

Let me give you some examples of how this is working. The Corporate Philanthropy Initiative is a great case study. Two years ago, a group of corporate funders reached out to the Council to explore the value and impact of corporate philanthropy. The group connected with corporate philanthropy leaders, consultants, and colleagues including the network of Regional Associations of Grantmakers. The result was the creation of a valuable guide, Increasing Impact, Enhancing Value: A Practitioner's Guide to Leading Corporate Philanthropy. Leaders in the philanthropic, private and public sectors have been applying principles from the Corporate Philanthropy Initiative guide for the last year.

What happened next, though, demonstrates the potential of networks.

Soon after releasing the guide, Council staff started receiving inquiries from people across the country wanting to connect with colleagues, so that they could apply the principles in the guide. Simultaneously, regional associations reached out to the Council to collaborate on creating venues to facilitate these conversations. To date, a collaborative group of regional associations working with the Council team has convened hundreds of corporate grantmakers and collected invaluable information for the benefit of the broader corporate philanthropy field.

The Council has built upon this energy. In collaboration with a team of corporate philanthropy members, the Council has developed and will soon introduce the next phase of this initiative. The Increasing Impact, Enhancing Value: Practitioners Toolkit will enable corporate giving leaders to apply the principles in the report further by sharing information more easily with each other.

So, what started as a report has multiplied into a national conversation. Why? Because the Council, its members, and regional associations facilitated connections between nodes in a global philanthropic network. That conversation is now changing strategy not just in corporations but also in many other parts of philanthropic, private, and public sectors.

Network Team

Over the next few years the Council redesign, including restructuring of staff positions, will enable us to replicate and enhance the Corporate Philanthropy Initiative model further. First, six Council network managers working throughout different parts of the country will facilitate stronger connections between Council members, peer organizations and other philanthropic, public and private sector organizations. Each network manager will be responsible for gaining a deeper understanding of Council members, facilitating communication with our partners, and providing information that can foster a more collaborative environment that enables more members to leverage the advantages of a broader network of resources.

They will do so for example by visiting member offices to learn firsthand about their work; attend regional association conferences to better understand regional dynamics so the Council can be a more effective, collaborative network node; and facilitate more open, direct communication between the Council and its members. Having a solid command of the local will also augment our policy efforts, since so many in Washington are focused on the happenings of their own districts and states. By taking these steps, our organization can provide more relevant and useful information to support the full philanthropic field. Think of them like a district branch manager of your national bank- a person that works for the national organization but has a more personal relationship with you.

Let's revisit the Corporate Philanthropy Initiative to show how this relationship will work. The network managers would develop future regional meetings in conjunction with regional associations instead of relying upon one staff person in our DC office to coordinate all of these. Each network manager, having a better understanding of the local dynamics facing funders will ensure the Council provides more tailored resources at local meetings and ensures member feedback is aggregated and used for the benefit of the full philanthropic field.

In the past, our transaction oriented approach did not provide us as effective a means to aggregate the innovative practices from our diverse membership. Our network strategy is singularly focused on enhancing the power of networks to learn about and more rapidly disseminate ideas and innovation for the benefit of the whole sector. Creating a network oriented staff enables us to do this much more effectively.

Another notable position on the network team is network developer. These staff members will facilitate connections and disseminate information between members based on topical issues versus geographic location. For example, after the Newtown, CT tragedy, the Council worked with Connecticut funders and the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy to host a conference call to connect funders in the aftermath so they could learn from Connecticut colleagues how they could help and share how others had helped communities in past tragedies.

Three major U.S. city mayors engaged in safe communities dialogue at the Council on Foundations 2013 Annual Conference

Since that call, our staffer in the network developer role has been reaching out to Council members, other philanthropists, government agencies, and private corporations to build an informal network and facilitate communication for the benefit of the whole field. An early benefit was the Building Safer Communities plenary session that featured (in photo from L-R) Mayors Emanuel (Chicago), Nutter (Philadelphia) and Landrieu (New Orleans) discussing their initiatives and partnerships with local funders to address violence in their cities. The Council team will soon have four network developers that will model similar behavior for an array of topics so members with similar priorities can more easily connect with each other and the Council can share the innovation from these connections with the full sector.

Just Getting Started

This is the tip of the iceberg. So much is possible. While member stewardship remains at the core of our business model, we want to do more than provide you with a piece of information when you call. We also want to connect you with an array of people and organizations that will help you innovate. We want to help you meet new peers and access new resources for maximum benefit and impact.

We have outlined the theory of how the network should operate, and we have told you about some of the staff structures that have been put in place. I want to address some of the common concerns I have heard from members directly, so that you know exactly what we are thinking and how it will impact your everyday relationship with the Council.

Here are some examples of improvements to some core services:

  • Legal Information: You will still be able to call us for legal information and in the future we will also connect you with peers grappling with similar issues to share best practices and strengthen national standards.
  • Professional and Leadership Development: You will still be able to contact us about professional development, and we will connect you with other organizations offering programs that may better suit your needs and give you more choices. Because you are a Council member, you may also receive special access because the Council has partnership with these organizations.
  • Member Stewardship: You will still be able to call us for information about an emerging issue, and when we answer you, we will also connect you to an online discussion forum hosted on a virtual Council on Foundations collaboration platform to continue the discussion and provide instant access to additional resources.
  • Conferences and Meetings: The Council will still host conferences, and you'll have more opportunity in the future to network with peers in similar positions and foundations while focusing on pertinent societal issues with a diverse group of leaders. We will also provide meetings aside from conferences to encourage connection with peers on specific issues.
  • Global Philanthropy: You will still be able to call us with a question about effective global philanthropic trends, and we will connect you with other foundations, corporate leaders and public sector organizations with similar objectives so that you can collaborate.
  • Strategic Networking: In the future you can call us for a list of other funders in your area working on pressing issues, and we will connect you with the regional association while also providing information about other funders and experts who have relevant expertise.

Innovation in the Field: In the future, you can approach the Council with an initiative you want to launch, and though we will work to integrate good ideas into our efforts, we will also be hiring great staff and experts to develop our own knowledge and insights in an effort to spot trends, bring expert thinking to members, and figure out how to translate new theories into better practices.

Advancing the common good is our common bond; it's why the Council exists. We serve the philanthropic sector because we want to see it thrive. To serve that mission, we must focus on the connections that unite us for a higher purpose. I firmly believe a fully functioning network focused on collaboration and dissemination of innovation is the best way to foster our shared goals and to promote learning for the benefit of the whole.


Vikki N. Spruill
President and CEO
Council on Foundations