Interview – Steve Gunderson

This year’s Council on Foundations (CoF) Conference bills itself as a leadership summit and ‘a singular opportunity to come together with your colleagues from across the country and around the world as one great movement with a shared mission – advancing the common good’. What prompted such an apparently ambitious agenda and what does he hope the Summit will achieve, Caroline Hartnell asked Council President and CEO Steve Gunderson. And is the idea of a common purpose for philanthropy worldwide even a remote possibility?

Alliance also asked various people who are planning to attend the Summit – from private foundations, family foundations and community foundations and a couple from outside the US – what they are hoping to gain from the Summit and what, if any, concerns they have about it. Their comments are scattered around this article.

What is your vision for this conference?

I suggested combining all of our annual conferences – our family conference, our community foundation conference and our annual conference – for two reasons: first, we have so much more in common as a philanthropic movement than we do separately as different kinds of foundations. Second, probably the most important trend facing us is that, with the growth of a global economy, there is a parallel growth of global philanthropy.

The Council board agreed that it was a good idea, and so did our constituency groups. Our international colleagues, like Gerry Salole of the European Foundation Centre and Monica Patten of Community Foundations of Canada, also recognize this tend towards common global philanthropic issues and felt it was quite acceptable for this first discussion to be in the US. ‘We will help you to bring a much larger international focus to the gathering than has ever happened before in one of your events,’ they said.

So my vision is to bring all of philanthropy together in a way that allows us – when we depart – to understand that we are part of a movement greater than ourselves, and greater than our own type of philanthropic giving. It is my hope that we will see ourselves as both a domestic and an international movement to enhance the common good around the world.

You talk of a common movement, but what’s the substance of what you have in common?

In planning for the Summit, the first thing we did was to establish a theme: ‘Philanthropy’s Vision: Leadership, Partnership and Impact.’ Wherever in the world you are, and whatever your form and level of philanthropy is, this theme has meaning. What is our vision for philanthropy in the 21st century? How do we meet the standards for leadership and partnership – across borders, in partnership with the private or the public sector? How do we enhance the impact of philanthropy, so that we are making philanthropic investments that change society for the better? We’re looking not at topical issues – like the environment or healthcare – but at process issues. That is because all of us are confronting these common challenges in how we do our work, regardless of the mission and focus of our specific giving.

At the Summit’s opening ceremony, we hope to inspire everyone with the potential of philanthropy to have a positive difference, all over the world. We are asking our colleagues, like Gerry Salole, from around the globe to introduce examples of philanthropy from their continent. We want people to realize that we can use different approaches while still achieving great results.

Given the differences between countries, how far do you think you’re going to be able to go with that sort of common role? You could say that doing good in society is a common role, but that’s so general it hardly needs 3,000 people to come together and say it.

There are two or three areas where I think we can go beyond that. First of all, I don’t think any of us – certainly not Americans – fully understand the most effective way for philanthropy to work in other parts of the world. That’s important because every element of American philanthropy – from corporate giving to many small family foundations – is very committed to global social justice issues. They want to know how best to put their philanthropic dollars to work.

Second, I hope that this will begin the conversation about how we can work together better. One of my visions over the next ten years is to work jointly to develop a common international protocol for philanthropy in the same way that we have established international trade laws. This step towards more uniform regulations for philanthropy begins in Europe. The work that Gerry Salole and the EFC are doing in the European Union towards a common philanthropic law is incredibly important. Once that happens, if I am still in this position, I will go to our government and really encourage them to begin global negotiations on what ought to be common standards for recognition and use of philanthropic dollars.

After 9/11, we in the US have faced major challenges to our ability to give internationally. We have to respond in ways that enhance the opportunities for philanthropy while recognizing the realities of terrorism.

So you’re looking more for codes and agreements about how philanthropy will work in society than for a specific role?

I can’t speak for anyone except the Council on this topic. But it is not the role of the Council on Foundations to tell any foundation or corporate giving programme what should be the focus and mission of their specific giving strategies. Our role is to grow philanthropy and to serve our members in their giving. But before I arrived at the Council, our Board of Directors approved a new strategic framework that calls upon the Council to provide both membership services and philanthropic leadership.

We need to address the issue of philanthropic leadership and we need to find a vehicle through which we do that. Whether the issue be global warming, immigration or HIV/AIDS, the world is looking to philanthropy for more than just our resources. They are looking to us for leadership. There’s a significant number of Americans who attend EFC meetings now and we learn so much from them. And there’s a growing number of EFC members who come to our conferences. We all need to develop partnerships and conversations like the Summit, because that’s the next step in addressing the issue of philanthropic leadership for global philanthropy.

I also think we can improve our cross-border philanthropic cooperation. At the EFC conference in Spain last May, there was an incredible panel on the environment. At our conference in Seattle three weeks earlier, we also discussed the environment. I bet that foundations in every other region of the world are having a discussion about the environment at their conference. Yet we’re not talking about how US philanthropy, and European philanthropy, and Pacific philanthropy can partner to address the issue. This is also true for immigration, human rights and social justice, as well as issues of food and hunger. There are many areas where philanthropy would be more effective if we had better international collaboration.

Around 80 per cent of all the sessions and concurrent sessions at our Summit will have a global perspective. There are a few sessions where we just can’t do that, but wherever we can, we are trying to have an international voice and an international focus. We believe that even our domestic foundations that currently do not engage in global philanthropy will benefit from this information. It will help them to be better grantmakers in their own region.

I was at the climate change session at the Council conference last year, and I was slightly disappointed by it because it addressed the issues so much in terms of the problems facing the US, as if climate change was a sort of umbrella sitting over America. In Europe, in a way it’s natural to address an issue that’s global in a global way because we are already so many countries. Do you think it’s harder in the US?

America is not very good at partnerships. We’ve got to improve on that. That’s one of the things we hope to do through this conference. Sometimes, when we talk about partnerships, people question American motives. I understand why that happens. But this contributes to a much more isolationist attitude in the US than I think our international colleagues understand.

For example, partly because of this administration’s opposition to the Kyoto agreement, it has taken a long time for some Americans to recognize and accept that there is a global climate change challenge. We’ve not been the leaders on this issue we should have been, and we have to figure out what are the best steps philanthropy can take to move from where we were to where we want to be. I think one of our primary roles at the Council is serving as a convener. We at the Council cannot and should not try to be experts on every issue in which philanthropy is engaged. In some cases we need to simply facilitate.

We have a series of affinity groups (grantmakers joining together to improve the quality of their giving in a common area) on particular subjects in the US. They tend to be the subject-matter experts on giving in specific fields. It is my hope that one of the outcomes of our Summit will be increased cooperation between our affinity groups and their international colleagues who are engaged in similar grantmaking.

Some of the Summit materials have talked of ‘one vision and one voice’. There was quite a bit of talk among the Alliance editorial board about whether you could perhaps have one vision for social justice, but the idea of one voice raised a universal outcry about the need for many and diverse voices. How do you see that?

Their concern is absolutely appropriate. I don’t think we’ve communicated what we mean very well. I believe that every philanthropic membership organization – like the EFC or the Council on Foundations – has one mission greater than any other and that is to grow philanthropy and its role in making a better world for all of us. If that is our common vision, we can see the areas where there is a consensus on what’s important – enhancing international cooperation in both the giving and investing of philanthropic dollars and the use of those philanthropic dollars to work most effectively in society.

We can and should find those areas where we have one voice. Then and only then do we go to the public, to the policymakers and to others and advance that agenda. There are going to be areas that are a priority for all of us, like cooperation in breaking down the barriers to philanthropic giving internationally. These are the ideas I have in mind when I talk about one voice.

Do we have one voice today? No. Is this Summit or anything the Council does meant to impose our agenda on anybody else? Absolutely not. It is simply to begin the conversations to seek those areas where we do have common voices and then move forward.

Recognizing the diversity of philanthropy in different societies and different economies is probably where we start. We’re actually trying to learn to celebrate the diversity of philanthropy just within the US! But what we’re seeing throughout the world is that as we become more and more engaged in the global economy, new approaches to philanthropic engagement among individuals and corporations are emerging. In the US we have our own group of foundations increasingly focused on global philanthropy. How do we bring all these people together? We need to talk, we can’t work in isolation.

What’s your own view on the role philanthropy should play in society?

First and foremost, I think we need to start with a premise that philanthropy is not, nor should it ever become, ‘government lite’. We are not in existence to step in where government walks away. That’s an important issue in the US and I think it’s becoming increasingly important all over the globe. Philanthropy has a common mission to be innovative and creative and create positive change. That often focuses on social justice issues but not exclusively.

Do you think the principle that philanthropy should never become ‘government lite’ is accepted by everyone in the US?

Well, we have some ideological diversity within the philanthropic movement in the US. But I haven’t met anyone, liberal or conservative, who thinks that the role of philanthropy is to step in where the government has walked away. We are private for good reason. We can take risks the public sector cannot. We can engage in controversial measures and strategies the government is not prepared to engage in because there is no public consensus. We can innovate in ways the government does not have the capacity to do. Those are characteristics of the philanthropic movement that we must promote and protect.

Are there some places philanthropy should be trying to walk away from, having got the government to come back in again?

I think as long as we are committed to social justice, philanthropy will do things that many of us believe are more appropriately done by the public sector, and at a scale philanthropy can’t meet. That being said, I’m not sure that the public sector has responded sufficiently to these issues in ways to allow us to now walk away.

One of the emerging trends in the US over the last year is the recognition of the role philanthropy can and should play in advocacy. Advocacy doesn’t mean engaging philanthropy in politics, it means public education. When you take the environment, the increased polarization of rich and poor, education, healthcare or a series of other issues, public education is an essential role for philanthropy. The Knight Foundation, for instance, has recognized that information is now one of the critical elements of positive change within communities in the US. So I think we do need to be more engaged from that perspective.

Two final points: when I came here, I had people on the left and people on the right pushing me to have the Council take positions for or against certain foundations that were giving to some cause they didn’t like. I said that’s not our role. Our role is to grow philanthropy and to celebrate the diversity of philanthropy. We have never told one foundation where to give, and I don’t think we ever will.

Finally, there was an initial perception about the Summit that CEOs would attend because they’re curious to see what it’s going to be like. But there was a similar perception that none of the other professional staff would go because there wouldn’t be the programmatic information and learning opportunities they normally expect. That’s not the case. We have put together very substantive concurrent sessions. We have said to the people creating these sessions, ‘You are in the marketplace of ideas and unless you have a session that is powerful enough and strong enough to attract a crowd, those attending the Summit are going to go some place else.’ We’re not going to force people into any session, rather we’re going to try to have a great competition of ideas, but one that is recognized for the strong content of all the sessions.

Steve Gunderson is President and CEO of the Council on Foundations. Email

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