2014 Exponent Philanthropy Conference – amidst the jugglers

 
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We just spent a few energizing days with over 1,000 ‘master jugglers’ (Exponent Philanthropy has created a one-year Master Juggler Executive Institute for senior staff). These are individuals who are turning big audacious ideas for social good into real work on the ground through nimble, resourceful, and simultaneous (think juggler) efforts – in other words staff and trustees of small or no-staffed foundations. The occasion was the Exponent Philanthropy biannual conference in Washington DC.

One of the reasons I enjoy this conference so much is that it attracts more donors and trustees than any other philanthropy pow-wow, along with their valiant staff. This is not an ivory tower group, working on theories of change and abstract logic models to craft gorgeous-looking initiatives with many layers of reports and metrics. Not that I have anything against that approach, but it is always refreshing to be around philanthropists and staff who have very muddy boots, know their communities and the organizations they fund very well, and are not afraid to take significant risks to try to get the job done. They arrive at this conference willing to share openly their challenges and aspirations, and hungry to learn from experts and peers about how to do their philanthropy better.

So what were the jugglers tossing around during the sessions and in the hallways? A few observations from my colleague Katherine Linder and me …

The buzz about impact investing continues. Case Foundation’s new primer is fantastic. While you’re at it, we’re proud of our recently published TPI primer on the same topic.

Exponent is no longer the group just focusing on nuts and bolts. Woven throughout the conference was lots of encouragement to do and support advocacy on critical issues. Given the gridlock in DC, folks like Diana Aviv at the Independent Sector suggest working at the state level.

While the millennial generation continues to be a focus, Michael Dimock of Pew Research Center reminds us that it may be time to move the conversation to the next, as of yet named, generation. As always in these conferences, the topic most frequently raised by those visiting the TPI booth was how to engage the next generation.

Reflecting the rising entrepreneurial spirit among younger generations, we were inspired by social entrepreneurs, including a poised and passionate Veronika Scott, founder and CEO of The Empowerment Plan. We were reminded of the update to the old teaching-a-man-to-fish adage that social entrepreneurs ‘won’t rest until they’ve revolutionized the fishing industry’.

Folks were excited to see continued advances in information sharing and mining data streams. Foundation Center showcased their Foundation Stats, Maps and Issue Lab, among other sessions.

Technology was a thread woven throughout the entire conference. It can no longer be considered a stand-alone category, but instead cuts across everything – however, we’ve only begun to scratch the surface of possibilities it opens up for philanthropy.

Finally, we moderated a fascinating session on a topic that TPI has helped many clients address, Ready to Grow: Ramping Up Giving and Operations. Demonstrating the intergenerational transfer of wealth in action, there was a full room looking for guidance on how to prepare for, staff up and re-position their philanthropy when facing a many-fold increase in resources.

It is marvellous to experience the joy, excitement and aspirations of the small-staffed foundations. Thank you Exponent Philanthropy!

Ellen Remmer is senior partner, The Philanthropic Initiative.


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