The Need for a Strong Voice for Institutional Philanthropy

Phil Buchanan

Early in my tenure at the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), when our staff numbered just three, I realized that to get visibility for our research on foundation performance assessment, we would need to secure a spot on the agenda of the annual conference of the Council on Foundations (COF), the trade association for grantmaking foundations. Those conferences in the early 2000s seemed (to a newcomer like me, anyway) to be the place to be. They were where the important presentations and conversations about new research or trends in foundation philanthropy happened.

Some 2,200 foundation staff (and board members) showed up for COF’s 2002 conference. The separate annual COF conferences aimed at community foundations and family foundations drew another 1,000 or so each. When it came to philanthropy “infrastructure” organizations, COF was at the center. I am not sure it was an especially strong voice in Washington or with the public, but it did wield power among the various organizations within Philanthrolandia.

COF’s leadership wasn’t interested in sharing that power, either. CEP didn’t have much success getting on the program (or the programs of most other conferences either) for a number of years. COF’s leaders weren’t exactly welcoming to new organizations like CEP, who were seen to be encroaching on their turf.

When we did get on a program in those years, it was often because Kathleen Enright, CEO of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations (GEO), a fledgling organization like CEP at that point, lobbied for us to be included, frequently on the panels she was moderating. Kathleen had built more relationships with colleagues than we had, and she saw CEP’s research and efforts to bring feedback to funders as helpful and deserving of attention.

That spirit of collegiality and generosity was a sharp and welcome contrast to our interactions with the “old guard” infrastructure organizations. It’s funny; GEO and CEP have often been confused for each other, or erroneously thought to be in some kind of heated competition, whereas in fact both organizations have largely been working in common cause. As Kathleen says, we’re practically related — we have the same middle name.

The infrastructure landscape has changed dramatically since GEO’s and CEP’s early days, with a slew of new and newly invigorated organizations playing crucial roles — from Exponent Philanthropy to the National Center for Family Philanthropy to Change Philanthropy and dozens of others. Meantime, COF has seemed to play a smaller role and has, in fact, shrunk considerably. The Chronicle of Philanthropy reported that the staff size was nearly cut in half during the recent six-year tenure of former CEO Vicki Spruill, who left earlier this year to run the New England Aquarium.

So, then, what should be the role of COF today?

That is of course not for me to say, but this is a blog post, so I won’t let that stop me. It is a question I’m sure the organization’s board of directors has grappled with. They have surely heard the grumblings of foundation leaders who feel the organization is no longer relevant.

But I’d like to suggest that it’s a big mistake to just let COF fade into the sunset. A strong voice for foundations is needed, both in Washington and with the general public. That’s not the only role COF can play, but it is a vital one.

While critique of philanthropy is healthy, and should be welcomed, it should also be met with reminders about what philanthropy has achieved, does achieve, and can achieve in this country and globally, as I recently argued in a Chronicle of Philanthropy column. It’s certainly the case that individual foundations are sometimes too quick to tout their own roles or successes. But foundations as a group have not done a very good job explaining their relevance and distinct role — or that of the larger nonprofit sector they support. To help us all make that argument, COF will need to listen carefully, synthesize those stories, gather evidence, and lead a chorus of organizations arguing forcefully for the legitimacy and importance of philanthropy and foundations.

In this political environment especially, it’s crucial that lawmakers and the public appreciate the role of philanthropy. Trust in all our institutions is on the decline, as we all know. But it’s especially alarming to see the precipitous decline in trust in charities in the past two years, as documented by the Edelman Trust Barometer.

We need to be reminded that philanthropy and nonprofits have contributed to much of what we take for granted as good in this country — from protection of our beautiful landscapes to vaccines to progress in civil rights to our vibrant arts and culture institutions. And philanthropy and nonprofits have contributed to tremendous progress on issues globally, perhaps most significantly declines in childhood mortality and levels of extreme poverty.

Many of us have worked hard to help improve the efficacy of philanthropy because of a shared belief in its power and potential. But I am not sure anyone has really done a good enough job communicating what it all adds up to and why it matters to the people who need to hear that message most. That’s certainly not CEP’s role, nor GEO’s, nor that of most of the other infrastructure organizations.

Yes, Independent Sector has done some of this, and its CEO, Dan Cardinali, should be credited for sparking thoughtful discussions about the role of our civic sector and the need to restore trust in it. Meantime, the National Council of Nonprofits and its CEO, Tim Delaney, has worked tirelessly on the policy front in defense of nonprofits and the vital roles they play.

But we also need a strong voice to articulate the unique role of institutional philanthropy.

That’s why I am thrilled that Kathleen, who has so ably led and grown GEO, will be assuming the CEO role at COF, as the COF board announced earlier today. Kathleen is uniquely positioned to enliven that organization. She brings with her enormous goodwill and trust, which she has built with foundation as well as other infrastructure organization leaders over her 17-plus years leading GEO. She also brings a knack for listening, communication, and messaging that will serve the organization well.

If ever there was a time that we can see that business and government alone won’t cut it, that we need great giving and great nonprofits, too, now is that time.

That’s a message COF is well positioned to deliver.

The COF of tomorrow will be dramatically different from the old-school one I encountered in my early days at CEP. And that will make it that much more important.

Phil Buchanan is president of CEP and a regular columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy. His forthcoming book, Giving Done Right: Effective Philanthropy and Making Every Dollar Count, is available for pre-order at all the usual places. Follow him on Twitter at @philxbuchanan.

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