Sunny San Diego was welcoming to the roughly 1,100 participants of the Council on Foundations’ 2013 Fall Conference for Community Foundations, held on 22-25 September. Conference committee chair John Kobara, COO of the California Community Foundation, stressed a learning agenda for participants. And so it was an unusual beginning compared to other such conferences. The opening plenary was actually an evening dessert reception during which we had an overview from Chicago Community Trust CEO Terry Mazany, co-editor of the newly published volume Here for Good, which offers great insights and case studies on US community foundations in their current state while also contemplating their future. This was followed by an inspirational presentation by Gina Rudan of Genuine Insights, Inc, who gave a short motivational talk about unlocking one’s genius.
The following morning, participants fanned out throughout the city on 11 Learning Tours, visiting various projects and neighbourhoods, covering topics from homelessness to environmental conservation to veterans. We were given some opportunity to share our learnings in a plenary during which sociologist Manuel Pastor also gave a good picture of the shifting demographics in the US, encouraging community foundations to get ahead of the curve on them. At another plenary, Council on Foundations CEO Vikki Spruill reaffirmed the Council’s strong commitment to community foundations even as the Council restructures to break down internal silos between constituency group services. She also described some of that transition, emphasizing that the Council will be much more proactive in getting to know its members’ needs so it can become a better facilitator of connections between its members and other philanthropic actors – while still maintaining strong legal services, government relations and professional development. I also enjoyed a well-attended, productive session by CFLeads, where attendees delved into the recently released Engaging Residents: A new call to action for community foundations.
Throughout the conference, I was a bit uneasy with some of the congratulatory, ‘you’re so important and doing such great work’ cheerleading tone of many of the speakers, which was why Monitor Deloitte’s Gabriel Kasper was such a welcome voice. In a plenary session advancing his project called ‘What’s Next for Community Philanthropy’, Gabriel thoughtfully and respectfully challenged community foundations to shift from a threat-based to an opportunity-based narrative for change. In other words to move away from seeing themselves as almost ‘under attack’ – facing stiff competition from commercial gift funds, online giving platforms and technology that can do away with intermediaries – to seeing these challenges as an opportunity to move forward and ‘get ahead of the curve’. He suggested that community foundations’ new narrative might be described as ‘combining stability and constancy with diversity and adaptation’, and exhorted them to do the following four new things:
- challenge old assumptions;
- pay attention to how the world is changing;
- think about tomorrow’s users; and
- copy shamelessly.
After Gabriel finished his excellent presentation, each table in the plenary room had fun playing cards. We all dealt out a card deck of 40 ‘orthodoxies’ (eg ‘donor-advised funds are growing and will continue to grow’; ‘we give in a specific geographic area’; ‘our role is to “lead”’; or ‘we make grants’) and selected one to see whether it needs to be ‘flipped’ – and if so, why and how. This exercise really opened up the space for critical thinking – important as the US community foundation field, marking its 100th anniversary next year, is reflecting on what will it take for it to be relevant, successful and sustainable in its second century.
Although the centennial was mentioned from time to time throughout the conference, more could have been done to lead into next year’s conference. Nonetheless, as a program officer from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, which has been supporting the community foundation movement for more than three decades, I was very pleased at the final plenary when the Cleveland Foundation set the stage nicely to invite people to next year’s conference in Cleveland in October. This event will mark the centennial not only of the founding of the nation’s first community foundation in 1914, but also of the starting point of an institutional form which has spread, thus far, to around 2,000 communities around the world.
Nick Deychakiwsky is program officer – civil society, C S Mott Foundation.