Interview – Steve Gunderson

Why were you interested in becoming President of the Council on Foundations?

With limited public resources, and need as great as ever, philanthropy is going to have to play a more important role. I felt that this job would be a wonderful opportunity to provide some kind of leadership, not only in the growth of philanthropy, but also in promoting the greater common good.

What do you see as the real priorities for the Council over the next few years?

The priorities of the Council over the next few years are really quite basic. First, we must define philanthropy in the 21st century. Then, we must support the growth of philanthropic resources in ways that are acceptable to donors – and this will mean new forms of philanthropy beyond just foundations. Finally, through this growth in resources, we will grow the role of philanthropy in service to society.

It is not philanthropy’s role to simply do what government does not do. But the simple reality is that the limits of government have no relation to the needs of society. Philanthropy will thus play a greater role in society. Some of this will be creative, innovative and sustainable ventures by philanthropy. Some of this will reflect some level of collaboration among philanthropic partners – or even with government. But the most important thing to realize is that we must grow, and we must grow in service.

There’s obviously been a huge amount of discussion in the States about accountability – where does that fit in?

The top, the middle and the bottom. The Council on Foundations is very proud of its record and that of its membership in this respect. We have established new governance standards for all areas – community foundations, family foundations, independent foundations, corporate giving programmes – and they have been adopted.

Part of my role is to communicate the importance of those accountability standards to our membership and to society at large. But I think it’s important to recognize that they are in the implementation phase. My hope is that we can do this ourselves, that we don’t have to have somebody do it for us. We would like to provide leadership in this area.

So might that mean the Council having to adopt some kind of internal enforcement mechanism?

We are actually looking at that. There are cases where the Council is reviewing the actions of foundations to determine whether to impose sanctions, so that process is beginning.

Do you feel there’s any conflict between the Council taking on this self-regulation role and being a membership organization, serving your members’ needs?

No I don’t. I think that in order to grow philanthropy, you must have the highest standards of conduct in order to earn the confidence not only of those who might consider putting resources into philanthropy but also of the general public.

What do you see as the Council’s major achievements over the last decade?

I think there are five areas that have been the bedrock of our actions in the last few years. The major achievement of the Council is its service to its members, and that has become more important given the dramatic changes in operating principles, in demands for accountability and in legislation. Second, over the last few years we have begun to build a legal and technical support system for our foundations so that they can comply with government regulations and also figure out how they can honour the operating principles that we have established. Third, under Dot Ridings’ leadership, we tried to make foundations see that they must either define philanthropy themselves or have it defined for them. She asked foundations to engage with their communities, their constituencies and the public, to help them understand where they were going, why they were going there and what their role was. Fourth, through all of this, we had to build a legislative team and a legislative strategy, which is an area where philanthropy was uncomfortable in the past. Finally, there’s the issue that I’ve talked about the most in this conversation – establishing strong and ethical foundations. Everything the Council has done in recent times has been focused on developing and implementing appropriate operating principles and ethical standards for foundations.

Can I ask you to clarify what you mean by legislative strategy?

Beginning to communicate with both the elected and the regulatory officials. At a federal level that means the Internal Revenue Service, which is the enforcer of the tax provisions relating to charitable contributions and philanthropy. At the state level, it’s our attorneys general as they deal with the regulations within their state jurisdictions.

We need to communicate with them about what philanthropy is and what we do, but that’s only the beginning. We also need to help them understand the impact of specific regulations. Just as we’re not experts on law, they’re not experts on philanthropy. I believe very strongly that with government’s limited resources, the role and responsibility of philanthropy will increase dramatically in 21st century society, so it’s absolutely essential that government does nothing to hinder its growth.

Talking of the impact of new legislation, is it true to say that the Council and other bodies were fairly silent about the estate tax and the effect that would have on philanthropy?

It’s my understanding that the Council in the past has not taken an official position on tax laws which affect society at large, even though these may have an indirect impact on philanthropic giving.

So it wasn’t because Council members’ themselves favoured the estate tax?

No, I think if you were to survey philanthropy in America, you would find that there are people who support total repeal, people who support the estate tax continuing, and those who support a certain trigger. I don’t think there is a consensus on what the impact of estate tax reform or repeal would be on philanthropy.

Would you like to see giving by US foundations overseas increasing?

Absolutely. We are a part of one world. As we look at corporate philanthropy, for instance, there is no such thing as an American company or a British company any more. They are involved in a global economy and their philanthropy is going to reflect that. I made very clear that one of my priorities will be to increase our cooperation with and participation in the global philanthropic community wherever need exists.

Do you see the Council playing a leadership role in relation to US foundations and international giving?

Yes I do, but I would also emphasize that it must be a constructive partnership with our philanthropic colleagues in Europe and other parts of the world. There are some countries where I think we can provide the same kind of technical resources as we do to foundations in the US. In countries where those resources already exist, we need to look for partnerships that can make effective use of those philanthropic dollars.

Steve Gunderson became President and CEO of the Council of Foundations at the beginning of October. He can be contacted at


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