Message from Vikki Spruill on thought leadership

Thursday, August 1, 2013

 Constructing a Thought Leadership Platform

Dear Colleagues,

This continues our series of membership updates on the continued impact of your investment in the Council. This week’s focus is thought leadership.  

A Broader Understanding of Thought Leadership
We’ve all heard the term “thought leadership.” But what does it actually mean? And what does it have to do with the Council’s work? Most important, what does it mean for you?

To me a thought leader is someone with expertise in a certain field who speaks with authority. I consider a thought leader to be an individual or institution whose opinion carries weight because of experiences, authenticity, history, unique insights, knowledge, and credibility. Increasingly, this person must also have an eye on innovation. One reason I like this definition is because it recognizes the truth of our work that thought leadership also comes from multiple voices and places—through formal channels and informal networks and connections. 

A thought leader generates ideas, spots trends, and elevates important conversations for consideration, contemplation, and debate.

Every day the Council’s members advance the common good.  In the communities local and global where needs are tangible, vast and ongoing, you add a rich texture that helps to inform the construction of an increasingly robust thought leadership platform and narrative. I also believe that those who live in the communities we serve can speak of their own experiences in a way that carries huge weight and credibility that further shapes the platform and increases relevance. 

That’s why, in our vision of a re-imagined and more relevant Council, we  recognize that thought leadership should not come from just one organization or individual, just one type of foundation, or just one source. Rather, each one of us, as engaged professionals and with distinctive perspectives of the sector, provides leadership in the way we think about the work that is happening in the field of philanthropy. 

We each have unique viewpoints, vantage points and insights based on our close-up observations of philanthropy in action. And we move our sector and society that much closer to an improved human condition by sharing those insights with each other. Each of us, therefore, is a thought leader—or can be, when we engage with our peers to innovate and learn, sharing the successes and failures authentically. And the Council, in its unique position as a national voice and node within a global philanthropic network, can tap these leadership moments and elevate them for others to access. Exposure to new networks and thinking accelerates learning and idea generation.

Translating the New Thought Leadership into Conferences, Meetings and Convenings:
True thought leadership is a collaborative effort that draws from a range of diverse perspectives and beliefs. A vital dialogue emerges from members, colleagues, stakeholders and experts as they share lessons learned and promising practices.  All of us have data available at our fingertips, yet the real power of our work resides in connection. Encouraging that connection is the principle that drives how we think about our conferences, meetings and convenings so that we leverage our time together in meaningful ways.

We encourage and foster the sharing of ideas and expertise in an effort to curate and connect leading edge solutions to your mission-driven goals and aspirations.  I have challenged the Council team to think of each convening with this framework in mind.  Rather than offering only one way dialogues with attendees, conferences and other convenings will be constructed to create interactive learning and sharing experiences.  These events will be where big ideas and debate are sparked, nurtured and encouraged to live beyond the closing conference gavel.    

L-R Ellen Alberding, President, The Joyce Foundation moderates Mayors Rahm Emanuel (Chicago), Michael Nutter (Philadelphia) and Mitch Landrieu (New Orleans), having an honest conversation about safety in their respective communities at the 2013 Annual Conference in Chicago

The hallmark of this new approach is exposing our members to the challenges and perspectives of their colleagues. What fears do you have in common? What are your pain points? What are your aspirations? When we can support and inspire each other, our shared solutions are that much more powerful because they span geographies, constituencies, and disciplines.

For example, the upcoming 2013 Fall Conference for Community Foundations has a new focus and feel.  We’ve redesigned several aspects of the meeting to provide an invaluable learning journey in which every lesson builds on the one before. The canvas of place shapes the conference content and experiences and therefore is a place for learning for all grantmakers focused on place-based philanthropy. The result will be a seamless exploration of community foundation effectiveness. For starters, we scuttled the familiar Call for Sessions and replaced it with a Request for Expertise. This serves to proactively connect you with philanthropic leaders who’ve faced obstacles like yours and can brainstorm with credibility.  

Learning Tours will visit sites such as San Diego’s Chicano Park, a tribute to the cultural heritage of the Barrio Logan community
Learning Tours will visit sites such as San Diego’s Chicano Park, a tribute to the cultural heritage of the Barrio Logan community

We’ve also created “learning tours” of San Diego-area communities. During these tours, participants will be paired with their peers in teams that share interests and concerns. These small groups will be touch points in a network where they learn together while sharing interests, ideas, best practices, and key topics.  Look for similar and additional enhancements to our upcoming Annual Conference and Community Foundation Conference in 2014.

Using Technology to Amplify Stronger Voice as Thought Leaders:

The Council is also identifying and implementing new technology to support our vision of thought leadership.  You will have access to new social media platforms. These outlets will facilitate continuous, in-the-cloud conversations between groups and individuals. Imagine a dialogue—begun at any one of our conferences or meetings—continuing seamlessly and weaving in those who couldn’t attend the conference in person as well as connecting to other global philanthropic networks—both large and small. These platforms will be robust and highly interactive. 

We are grateful that Sharon Burns, a leading technology expert in the field, has agreed to work with the Council to reach these innovation goals.  She comes to us on the heels of a very successful and dynamic career with both the MacArthur Foundation and the City of Chicago.  Sharon is bringing a fresh, forward looking perspective, and I’m very confident we’ll bring you a new way of leveraging technology to connect for the common good.

Hearing your voice, ideas, opinions, and interests are vitally important as our thought leadership platform is constructed. We will increase our use of member input via a variety of web-based and mobile technologies that allows each of you to quickly and easily participate in member wide discussions. This is engagement at a time and place convenient to you: where, when, how, and with whom you want.

Networking at the Global Engagement Reception at the 2012 Annual Conference in Chicago

Thought Leadership In Action:   
Highly valued, timely and relevant resources and tools are important hallmarks of a robust thought leadership platform.  Soon-to-be released at the upcoming Fall Conference for Community Foundations, the “What’s Next for Community Philanthropy” initiative will engage community foundations in an unprecedented process of innovation and re-design. It will help funders build on their successes and explore new models and possibilities in order to serve their communities better.  Similarly, our Corporate Philanthropy Initiative produced a highly utilized guide, called Increasing Impact, Enhancing Value: A Practitioner’s Guide to Leading Corporate Philanthropy. These two examples are previews of the Council’s growing portfolio of leadership resources designed for you.

In Closing:
So many have given very generously of your knowledge, time, and resources.   Please continue to share your ideas and recommendations so that together we construct a thought leadership platform that advances our collective efforts.  We could not do all we do at the Council without your support. I look forward to continuing our collaboration in the months ahead.



Vikki N. Spruill

President and CEO
Council on Foundations