An Insider’s Guide to the CEP Conference

Phil Buchanan

When I was hired as CEP’s first executive director in 2001, there were far fewer national conferences aimed at major donors and foundation leaders than there are today. Those that did happen were large, attracting 1,000-plus attendees. Competition to get on the program as a speaker was intense.

Indeed, as I noted in a post last month, our inability to wrestle an invitation to speak about our research at any of those few conferences was what led us to see if we could put on our own. (Necessity is the mother of invention and all that.) Our first attempt, in 2002 in Boston, attracted well under 100 people. But, perhaps, therein lay its strength, since attendees appreciated the candor and depth of discussion among those who came because of a shared interest in effectiveness.

People thanked us for “keeping it small and intimate” and we nodded knowingly and acted like that had been the plan all along — without ever actually saying so, which wouldn’t have been true! If you were looking for quantity — of programming options or attendees’ functional roles or business cards pocketed — our conference wasn’t the right one for you. But if you were looking for interactivity, challenge, and a focus on foundation effectiveness and what it takes, you were in the right place.

We had stumbled onto something. Today, our biennial conference is larger, but we have sought to retain what seems — by dumb luck — to have worked for us in the early days. So, if you’re coming to Boston on April 4-6, whether it’s your first time with us or you’ve been to every CEP Conference since 2002, here’s an insider’s guide of what to expect.

  • Expect candid conversation and interactivity — even in plenaries. In our April 5 morning plenary, you’ll be diving into tough questions at your tables with your peers about how foundations best respond to a changed political context. That session will draw on CEP research and ask you to consider how your foundation can better take advantage of its opportunities for impact in a challenging time. That spirit of candor and interactivity will continue, and get even more introspective, in the next session with Doug Stone, author of Difficult Conversations and Thanks for the Feedback. And, yes, don’t worry — we’ll also have some plenaries with more traditional talks. We’ll open the conference on April 4 by listening to an address by Equal Justice Initiative Founder Bryan Stevenson, who, in my book, is one of the most inspiring living Americans.
  • Expect to hear from a range of outside perspectives — including grantees, intended beneficiaries of foundation and grantee work, journalists, and critics. One of our plenaries features the points of view of those who have called on foundations to do better, including author Linsey McGoey and my favorite blogger, Vu Le. Our closing plenary speaker, Jessica Helfand, has a very different take on “design thinking” than the prevalent one in Silicon Valley. Indeed, that’s why we invited her! Our thought is that people benefit from having their assumptions and perspectives challenged — and the only way to do that is with a diverse array of speakers with diverse points of view.
  • Expect to hear a range of foundation approaches. We at CEP are suspicious of those who claim to have the “best” approach, because we believe what is best inevitably depends on the values and goals of a foundation, as well as its unique context. Those vary widely. So, for example, when we planned a session featuring foundation leaders discussing the ways they are working to address inequality — in response to a presentation by renowned economist Raj Chetty — we chose three with very different strategies: Ford Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
  • Expect to laugh. I will feel like we have failed you if you don’t laugh at our conference. It’s serious stuff, of course, being discussed. And it is a moment in time in this country that, to me at least, feels anything but funny. But without ever minimizing the fear and pain that is so clearly apparent in the U.S. and globally (and we’ll be welcoming many attendees and speakers from around the world), we need to find moments of humor in the hard work. If renowned playwright and actress Sarah Jones’ performance of an original piece about philanthropy — a piece she’ll be performing for only the second time after debuting it at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s 50th anniversary symposium in December — doesn’t make you laugh, see me after for a refund.

CEP2017.org, the official conference website, has more information, including the full schedule and lists of speakers and attendees. I can’t wait to see you April 4 in Boston.

Phil Buchanan is president of CEP and a regular columnist for the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Follow him on Twitter at @philxbuchanan.

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