Speaking Truth to Power

Jim Canales

Since 2003, I have had the privilege of leading two private foundations. While I have enjoyed my job immensely, there’s one aspect of this work that I have never enjoyed: the inherent power dynamic between foundations and our partners that inhibits — even discourages — frank and honest communication.

On many occasions over these years, I know I have made mistakes and fallen short. When I have, I have always been grateful for the caring individuals in my network who are willing — even courageous enough — to tell me so. Perhaps counter-intuitively, these have been some of my most treasured moments as a foundation leader. They forced reflection, encouraged learning, and, I hope, enhanced my leadership.

However, these kinds of frank, honest conversations are too rare. twitter-web Because of the inherent power dynamic, I live with a nagging suspicion that people won’t tell me what they really think out of fear of curtailing the prospect of securing the foundation’s resources.

This reality is a challenge for all of us who work in philanthropy — not just for CEOs. If we can’t have open and honest discussions about where we’re falling short and how we might improve, how can we be optimally successful? If funders and their partners can’t challenge one another, how can we ever expect to bring our best thinking to our shared efforts and aspirations? And, perhaps most insidiously, in the absence of such robust exchange, don’t we run the risk that foundation leaders and staff come to believe their ideas really are that good?

In such an environment, the arrogance that can easily set in becomes a genuine obstacle for foundations. Moreover, lacking the external pressures that create accountability in other sectors — the pressures of the bottom line or the ballot box — I would argue that our standards in philanthropy ought to be even higher.

Stepping right into this challenging dynamic, for its upcoming national conference in Boston, CEP has organized a plenary conversation focused on candid perspectives on philanthropy from some of its most courageous and constructive critics. I am honored to be facilitating a discussion with a range of leaders who bring different perspectives on the issue of philanthropy’s power and influence. CEP has invited panelists who have demonstrated an ability to ask the hard questions, who have constructively pushed philanthropy, and who are willing to give voice to the perspectives and views held by many.

The panel includes nonprofit executive Vu Le, well known for his prolific and widely-read blog, Nonprofit with Balls, where he routinely shares his concerns about foundations, their need to deepen their commitment to social justice, their idiosyncratic norms and processes, and the impediments they create to on-the-ground progress. Linsey McGoey has researched and written critiques of philanthropy, calling foundations and other giving vehicles to account for their opacity and secrecy. She asks hard questions about the role of philanthropy in a democratic society. And Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sacha Pfeiffer covers the role of wealth and power for The Boston Globe, probing how philanthropy uses its influence. (Sacha was also part of The Globe’s investigative unit, which was memorably portrayed in the Academy Award-winning film, Spotlight.) As an eloquent and passionate “insider” critic of a field he believes can and should use its voice and engagement with greater force, Grant Oliphant, president of the Heinz Endowments, will round out the panel.

Of course, overarching this conversation (and other sessions at the conference — notably the two optional open forums on April 5), is the current context of our work. No matter our issues or politics, we are all grappling with the implications of a new moment in Washington D.C. As I wrote recently on Barr’s blog, it is evident that this is a time that will require us all to listen more attentively, to stay flexible and adaptable, and to ensure our values remain our anchor. It’s also a moment where the independent sector as a whole — nonprofits and foundations — must commit ourselves to honest, open, constructive, and mutually supportive partnerships. These are themes we plan to explore in the plenary, as well.

Yes, we are inviting truth to speak to power. And this will be a rare chance to hear it without the usual filters. Yet, as the panelists and I have prepared for this discussion, we also committed to exploring constructive solutions — including to a question foremost on many of our minds: At a time when our national discourse has become so polarized, how can we foster more honest, open, and candid communication (including criticism) and robust two-way conversations about how philanthropy can be more effective? There’s no better place to explore this question than at a CEP conference, and I am looking forward to it.

If you have questions or topics you want to be sure we explore, whether or not you can attend, please use the comments section below to share your thoughts.

Hope to see you in Boston!

The 2017 CEP Conference, Leading Effective Foundations, will take place April 4-6, 2017 at the Boston Park Plaza Hotel. For more information, please visit the conference website, and to reserve one of the remaining spots, register here.

Jim Canales is president and trustee of the Barr Foundation, based in Boston. At the CEP conference, he will moderate the plenary discussion, “Balance of Power: Perspectives on Philanthropy’s Influence,” on Thursday, April 6 at 11:30 a.m. Follow him on Twitter at @jcanales.

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