2014 Exponent Philanthropy Conference: is philanthropy fulfilling its promise?


Betsy Brill


Exponent Philanthropy held its largest conference ever – 1,000 participants – in Washington DC, 30 October – 1 November. This was the first conference as Exponent Philanthropy; formerly known as ASF – the Association of Small Foundations.

Opened the conference, Henry Berman, Exponent’s CEO, called all participants to use their vision and passion and turn it into action; to use their resources to create partnerships with NGOs and other funders to create impact; to take their vision and focus to exercise leadership to catalyse change. He emphasized that having philanthropic resources is a gift that comes with great responsibility. Setting the stage for the myriad of sessions that helped the attendees to realize this call to action, the conference opened with a heartfelt and energetic talk by Michael Smith, a member of the White House Team leading the My Brother’s Keeper initiative (former director of the Social Innovation Fund). Michael encouraged the audience to: be fearless; make big bets; experiment early and often; make failure matter; reach beyond your bubble and let urgency conquer fear!

Two sessions, in particular, hit the ‘heart’ of the donor journey: ‘The Paradox of Leadership – How Humility and Listening Empower Bold Action’ and ‘Reclaiming a Moral Life for Philanthropy’. These sessions embodied how donors can effectively navigate their work, beginning with the most fundamental questions, which many donors fail to ask themselves before they get started on their giving journey.

Doug Bauer (Clark Foundation) facilitated ‘The Paradox of Leadership’ with panellists Christopher Harris (senior philanthropy consultant) and Janis Reischmann (Hau’oli Mau Loa Foundation). The session created an opportunity for donors to dialogue with one another in small groups, asking themselves the following questions:

  • What does humility look like when you see it in practice – in universal terms?
  • What does humility look like when you see it in practice – in philanthropy and grantmaking?
  • How might humility practised in philanthropy influence the process of making grants, working with grantees, and/or outcomes.

‘Reclaiming a Moral Life for Philanthropy’ was facilitated by Christopher Harris and he too engaged donors in small groups asking the following question:

  • Why do I do philanthropy?

These are the questions we must ask ourselves to ensure we are: confident and not arrogant; acting in the spirit of partnership and co-learning as we endeavour to do our work; aware of the unintended consequences of our grants; working to mitigate the power imbalance between donor and grantee; and seeking shared outcomes to address the most protracted social and environmental issues of our time.

Is philanthropy fulfilling its promise and potential? Exponent Philanthropy’s conference helped us all reflect on this critical question.

Betsy Brill is president of Strategic Philanthropy, Ltd.

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