As I reflect on this year’s Fall Conference for Community Foundations, I realize I left even more invigorated (and more tired) than I usually do when returning from such a gathering with colleagues and friends. I knew the 2014 conference was going to be special for me. After all, not everyone gets to be part of a centennial celebration during their lifetime. And the fact that it took place in Cleveland, my original hometown, was icing on the cake!
Part of the feeling of pride and accomplishment I came away with is no doubt due to all the work involved in launching the Mott Foundation’s new microsite, cf100.mott.org, just in time for the fall conference. This resource was created to share the lessons we’ve learned from our experience in supporting the community foundation field.
I also had a hand in a few other Mott-supported projects that were featured at the conference: the Community Foundation Atlas, CFLeads’ latest resident engagement work, What’s Next for Community Philanthropy, youth community philanthropy, worldwide community philanthropy infrastructure support, an assessment of the International Community Foundation Fellows Program at the City University of New York, and a history of US community foundations by Eleanor Sacks. Last but not least, the good work that’s being done by the Global Fund for Community Foundations, including the Global Alliance for Community Philanthropy.
But working on all these projects leading up to the conference was as energizing as it was exhausting. Perhaps what thrilled me the most was not only the strong international participation in this conference (87 people from 29 countries) but the meaningful interaction between so many US community foundation representatives and their counterparts from around the world – as commented on by Jasna Jašarević in her blog.
Things kicked off with a well-attended and fun session/reception called ‘Meet & Greet with International Participants’ (how could it not be fun, with CENTRIS’s Barry Knight as the master facilitator!). There were four other well-attended sessions sharing international community foundation experience, as well as three global storytelling ‘flash talks’ which were part of a new ‘Know & Go’ learning format piloted by the Council on Foundations.
The clincher, however, was the final morning plenary session. Brilliantly moderated by Global Fund for Community Foundations executive director Jenny Hodgson, representatives from Canada, Northern Ireland, Latvia, Kenya, Brazil and Slovakia really brought to life the experience of international community foundations for the mainly US audience. I think this conference went a long way in showing those working in the US field that there is much to be learned from the exciting, innovative things happening around the world and that they have many things in common with their (generally) younger and smaller international counterparts.
On the other side, I also saw many international community philanthropy practitioners gaining a better understanding of the US community foundation field. The conference helped dispel some unfair stereotypes that had built up over the past several decades (eg ‘all they care about is growing their endowments’ or ‘they don’t pay attention to issues of equity’).
But beyond poignantly highlighting the symbiotic relationship between the global and the local, this conference, more than any other philanthropy conference I have been to, brought the deeply personal into the realm of the professional. While speaking mainly about the community foundation field, the opening speaker, uber-eloquent Ambassador James Joseph, hinted at that personal component when mentioning the Xhosa proverb of ‘people are people through other people’, or speaking of the importance of identity, and relaying Vaclav Havel’s words about the gift of hope. This in addition to Joseph giving what probably was the sound-bite of the conference: ‘Charity is good, but justice is better.’
And then, the person who really brought it all home for us was the closing speaker, New York Times columnist David Brooks. He talked about the personal qualities that can be of the greatest value in philanthropic work: love that eliminates the distinction between giving and receiving; experience of suffering which attaches a person to the transcendent; commitment to institutions that supersede oneself; a sense of calling to a higher purpose; and character which is built through self-defeat.
It is highly unusual to hear a speech like this at a philanthropy conference. Amid all the necessary talk of strategy and planning, metrics and impact, infrastructure and capacity, advocacy and policy, capital and investment, Brooks inspired and challenged conference participants on a very human level to be better at what we do. Now that was a gift.
And so the culmination (marking the centennial) turns into a fresh start. So many new relationships established, so many old ones reinvigorated, and so many ideas about what we do next in advancing community philanthropy. I’m looking forward to the next 100 years!
Nick Deychakiwsky is a Civil Society program officer at the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.