A Common Vision for Improving the Future of Community

Vikki Spruill Opening Remarks at the 2016 Annual Conference
Sunday, April 10, 2016

 

By leading together with civility as our compass, we can mold the future into a better, safer, and more just version of the present."Wow! Thank you Cynthia Germanotta, her daughter Lady Gaga, and the Born This Way Foundation for working with us to create that awesome video. I can’t think of a better way to start us off than with a reminder of why we do this work. All of us here are, in some way, working to build a future that allows young people to achieve their dreams.

With that, welcome to Washington, DC!

It is such a pleasure to have so many passionate leaders in philanthropy gathered in our nation’s capital during a time of such consequence for our country. The future president and much of our Congress is up for grabs. The balance of the Supreme Court remains uncertain.

These are the leaders that will shape issues of war and peace. They’ll determine the laws that govern our country. They’ll make profound decisions about our economic future. They’ll represent our country and its ideals in the community of nations.

The stakes really don’t get higher, and DC is where it all comes together. This is a place, where men and women, with all their fragile humanity, make the decisions that shape history.

It’s a fitting place for us to talk about the future of philanthropy and the future of community.

Before we tackle the big ideas shaping the next few days, I want to thank the architects of this conference. We’ve gathered more than 1,300 philanthropic leaders and 350 speakers for more than 100 carefully curated events.

We have created targeted programming for community foundations, family foundations, corporate foundations, globally oriented foundations, as well as five major preconference programs, receptions, and world-class plenaries.

I want to express my deep gratitude to those who have made this conference experience possible. Five working groups have been developing conference programming for six months. Our Board and conference partners have raised the resources needed to ensure the best possible experience.

In particular, I want to express our deep appreciation to:

  • The Walton Family Foundation,
  • The Annie E. Casey Foundation,
  • Medtronic Foundation,
  • Lilly Endowment, Inc. and
  • John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Our staff have been working for well over a year to make sure the details are just right.

I would ask that the working groups, our conference partners, the Council Board and Council team please stand to be recognized for their dedication and hard work.

The next three days together offer an opportunity to learn and be challenged in our thinking, to connect with one another, and to make progress on some of today’s most pressing issues.

Our hope is to elevate the discourse in our profession and help all of you think differently about your work. We’re drawing on ideas from history, finance, economic development, civil rights, education, and moral philosophy to help us better understand The Future of Community and philanthropy’s role in shaping our changing world.

So get ready to dig in, because we’ve got some work to do.

On a chilly day like today, the last thing you want to do is think about the deep, dark, heart of winter. But please bear with me for a moment.

I want you to think about New Year’s Eve. Imagine a pair of families who meet up every year to celebrate. Picture old friends at the holidays: comparing snapshots of the growing grandkids, trading stories about who’s got a new job, new house, or new baby.

Over the course of that evening the conversation ranges, but it never lags. Imagine the discussions you have when you talk with a truly kindred spirit.

Now what if I told you these old friends were one of the most famous odd couples of the century?

Different politics, different sensibilities, different genders, different faiths?

What if I told you they came down on opposite sides of almost every contentious debate of the last generation?

And what if I told you that despite these differences, they never missed a chance to celebrate a new year together, or to sit side by side at the opera they both loved?

The friendship between Justices Antonin Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsberg was one of the most poignant pieces of news to come out of his recent passing. In the days after his death, Justice Ginsberg wrote a moving tribute to the man she called her “best buddy.”

He was a larger-than-life man who couldn’t have thought more differently from her when it comes to interpreting the Constitution they both sought to uphold.

What I see here is more than a story of unexpected friendship. I see an inspiration for the future of community.

Given the tone of our national politics, it’s hard not to be preoccupied with the future. I think often about the kind of world that my two daughters will inherit. I worry that the ties which have kept our national community together feel strained.

There’s an old Japanese proverb that says “Fire always makes room for itself.” It captures the idea that fire finds ways to burn. It hungers for fuel.

Today, it seems as though the fire of discord makes room for itself. It too hungers for fuel.  Every group, every niche, every political perspective finds an audience, converts, and a home.

There’s a new buyer every second in today’s marketplace of ideas. 

I have spoken with countless grantmakers uncertain about this new normal and what it means for philanthropy. At the same time, philanthropy is also a community. We are gathered here because we see ourselves as common practitioners of the grantmaking profession. 

With so many ways to distinguish ourselves, what does the Future of Community mean for those we support? What does it mean for our philanthropic community? These questions will shape the way that the Future of Community beckons us forward.

Despite the intellect in this room, I’m not sure that any single person here has the answer. But I do know that as leaders within civil society, philanthropy is uniquely suited to focus on the bonds and not the divisions. Without the pressures of an election or business cycle, we have the opportunity to offer solutions that others cannot.

No matter your organization’s size, type, mission, or interest, we all share a common denominator: the desire to advance the common good.

This desire is philanthropy’s promise, and no one can do it as well.

Philanthropy makes real change possible in a changing world, and at the same time, it provides for the long-term vitality of communities.

Philanthropy is driven to create meaningful impact, using a wide variety of tools. We are able to resist partisan pressures and see past private interests. 

This independence provides indispensable social benefit and makes philanthropy a bedrock of civil society—a critical force for positive change in communities across the globe.

Philanthropy’s place is between and among those who want to build a world that is sustainable, safe, and more just.

Last year, I spoke about the importance of us Leading Together in order to fulfill this promise. This is the idea that philanthropy should develop collaborative leadership that focuses on impact over the individual concerns of any one person or institution.

This year, we are building on that concept and are focusing on the Future of Community, because we need to lead with a common vision in mind. No place is that more important than in communities.

I’d like to share three ideas for you to consider.

UNDERSTAND HOW COMMUNITY IS CHANGING

First, the nature of community is changing in our globalized, technology-rich world.

Second, this new understanding needs to be used to solve our common challenges.

And finally, as standard-bearers for a new civility, we need the productive, mutual understanding it will take to get the job done, no matter the differences among us and in society more broadly.

I know. It’s a tall order. But none of us can afford to sit this one out.

So let’s start with the changing nature of community, because it’s a brave new world out there.

In the not-too-distant past we defined ourselves largely by shared geography. But we also divided ourselves by race, class, ethnicity, and faith. We didn’t see others in part because we didn’t engage others as much as we do today.

Fast forward to the internet age and the real-time news cycle. With the click of a mouse, we can find like-minded people all over the globe. Armed with Snapchat, Vine, and other grassroots technologies, young people and retirees alike have the chance to become cutting edge entrepreneurs.

It would seem that the more information we have, the more we know about others. There’s evidence that people are more tolerant and accepting than previous generations.

But these are peculiar and sometimes contradictory times. The more we celebrate our unique affinities, identities, and traditions, the less we relate to those who don’t share them.

Newfound tolerances have expanded hearts and minds, but it’s now easier to retreat behind the walls of our own communities—to stay with the familiar and the comfortable.

We all love the sound of an echo chamber with voices like ours, so it can be easier to defriend an acquaintance on Facebook rather than wrestle with his or her provocative political views. You can set up your phone to ensure that your news feed only gives you information from outlets you want to hear. You don’t have to look beyond your “feed” to see that some of our oldest predispositions are still going strong.

Similarly, in philanthropy, we are often drawn to working with like-minded partners or colleagues from the same foundation type or size. We understand that there’s power in differences. Yet in focusing on the differences and not the opportunities, we miss out on expanding our view. 

It’s not just possible for people to learn from each other and to recognize difference—it’s essential.

Philanthropy is uniquely situated to create social innovation, solve today’s toughest challenges, and elevate our highest ideals.

Philanthropy is rooted in communities, but capable of national and global reach.

Philanthropy works across sectors—in partnership with government, business and non-profits—to deliver on its promise.

And so, who better to balance on the head of this pin: recognizing the new forms community takes, and yet bridging the differences among them?

But to make good on this promise, philanthropy must make its role clear and relatable to the public at large. And it must do this even as it undergoes its own series of changes—and fends off its own threats.

Philanthropy mirrors the world within which it operates. So when we seek to understand the future of community, we have the responsibility to look at both the communities we serve and the professional community in which we work.

LEADING TOGETHER TO STRENGTHEN PHILANTHROPY

Which brings me to my second idea for your consideration. And that is to find fellowship with one another in determining your path forward as leaders.

Find fellowship in promoting the good you do, and recognize the unique role you play in harmony with your grantees.

Find fellowship in ensuring philanthropy’s sustainability, even as it undergoes change.

Find fellowship in cultivating and mentoring new, more diverse leaders for our field.

And perhaps most importantly, we need to find fellowship in fighting our society’s toughest systemic problems—from inequality to a changing climate.

That’s why we’re united around a shared commitment to collaboration—Leading Together.

As we planned this conference, we surveyed hundreds of ideas and looked at a wide variety of important issues.

We selected three of the most pressing issue of our times—climate change, education, and justice reform. These are issues where foundations of all types and sizes are coming together to create the kind of transformational impact that resonates with any issue you may be tackling.

Our hope is that even if you don’t fund in these specific areas, you will connect with your colleagues to explore new ideas that might be applicable to your priorities.

You’ll have the chance to dig into the urgent local, national, and global concerns of climate change.

We’ll also talk about education and skill acquisition. Both are essential in today’s economy because everyone in the workforce, myself included, must continually learn new lessons and develop new skills.

And we’ll discuss philanthropy’s leadership in addressing the modern crisis of our justice system.

None of the conversations around these issues will be easy. People on all sides of the debates feel passionate—and sometimes aggressively opposed. There are no shortcuts here, but these are the responsibilities we’ve taken on.

If philanthropy can’t address these issues, who will?

Which brings me to my final idea.

CHAMPION CIVILITY, PLEASE

Each of you is engaged somehow in the business of changing the world. Which means each of you has learned that change-making is messy stuff. My charge to all of us as we go forward in this work of community building, is to be champions for a new and needed civility.

Civility is an attitude which leads to discovery, and with it, our bonds will be stronger.

Let’s challenge ourselves and each other to find common ground as we work to promote the common good.

The Future of Community requires philanthropy to bring people to champion mutual engagement and to bring leaders together around important challenges. 

The Future of Community transcends geography. It transcends ideology. It contains many interests. And that’s ok. Because the bonds worth having are the ones that take effort.

All communities are rooted in history, and philanthropy is no exception. As part of the Council on Foundations community, I am privileged by a rich legacy of leadership by people from across the field. Every day I’m grateful to be able to stand on the shoulders of giants—many of whom are in this room.

One of those giants, Ambassador Jim Joseph, a predecessor of mine at the Council, recently wrote a book reflecting on his journey to leadership. In it he shares some wisdom for us as we think about The Future of Community:

The bonds of social cohesion and community are increasingly fragile. Moral theologians, political philosophers, opinion leaders, and pundits of all sorts are once again in search of common ground. Yet it may be that they are searching in the wrong place, assuming that American society was somehow fixed and final rather than a community that is always in the making. What has sustained me in my efforts to help build a new and altogether just America has been the notion that our uniqueness as a people lies not in the occasional assumption that we have finally formed the ideal community, but in the fact that we are always seeking to form a more perfect union.

The Future of Community is one inspired by a desire to constantly make a better, stronger community.

Together, this philanthropic community may build a future that reflects the light of Ambassador Joseph’s sentiment.

The future we want is one where we can fight it out in a courtroom and still celebrate New Year’s as friends.

It won’t happen without your dedicated efforts. It definitely won’t happen without your collaboration. But by leading together with civility as our compass, we can mold the future into a better, safer, and more just version of the present.

Friends, colleagues, the opportunity is there for the seizing.

There’s no time to waste. Let’s get to work!

Thank you.