October 05, 2014

Council on Foundations CEO Defends Group’s Leadership Role

To the Editor:

When the board hired me two years ago, they were clear what my job had to be: Transform an organization to better meet the needs of its members.

The world around us was changing, and the Council on Foundations wasn’t adapting quickly enough.

In response to Pablo Eisenberg’s column about the council ("Will the Council on Foundations Be a Change Agent or Just a Trade Group?" September 25), let me share some of what we have done so far.

I've learned that the story of the council is the story of philanthropy. Philanthropy has always inspired society at large to rise to the challenges of our day and to meet those challenges requires the sector to work together in unprecedented ways. This happens best when there is a permanent place to do this. The council is that place.

My team and I understood that as we changed the council, we would in turn push our members and the field of philanthropy to change with us. And we understood that transformation is hard and that at times we would misstep. But we wouldn’t let that deter us.

To guide the shift from the past to the future, I’ve spent two years listening to hundreds of foundation leaders, lawmakers, and thinkers.

Without the council, we risk cannibalizing each other in our efforts rather than complementing each other. The field suffers, but more important, the issues that we all work to address—issues that demand the very best of us—don’t get our best efforts.

Philanthropy needs a united voice that is as influential as the Chamber of Commerce is for businesses and as forward-thinking as the Council on Foreign Relations is for international issues.

The council gives foundations that voice. This is important, as issues like comprehensive tax reform are coming to Congress sooner rather than later, and we must stand together and speak up for the role of philanthropy.

For the philanthropic sector to be as strong as it needs to be to tackle these big challenges, it needs to be more networked and more nimble.

Ten years ago, we would not have thought that charitable giving, a bedrock of American civic life, would be under attack. That’s why we are deeply engaged in discussions around tax reform and individual tax provisions that are meaningful for our field.

I’ve brought in the most talented, focused, and strategic team the council has ever had. We have concentrated our work on what matters most to our members and what the philanthropic sector needs most to effect lasting change and thrive.

We have a restructured and more nimble staff with deep expertise in philanthropy And we restructured the board to govern the organization, not administer it. We are in this for the long haul and will fiercely defend and promote charitable giving.

One of the first groups we launched on our new high-tech platform, the Philanthropy Exchange, engages funders of veterans and military-families programs. This platform can empower grant makers to connect —when and how they want—with others in the field. We were very proud that First Lady Michelle Obama joined us to launch this group and declared that the effort to bring funders together in real time was a "big deal."

All year long, we have commemorated the Community Foundation centennial and developed research that will position community foundations for continued success.

Our listening and learning have given us a unique vantage point across the whole of the sector, one that ensures that we are well informed about the breadth, scale, and diversity of the philanthropic sector's needs.

The council can no longer be all things to all people or simply serve as a functionary that administrates the work of its members.

As we change, we invite input and opinion, even scrutiny about our efforts. In doing so, we make better decisions. Such behavior by the council reflects the same aspirations of our members who often seek to catalyze, at times to provoke, or occasionally to force change.

Critics and skeptics may ask, "What’s going on at the council?" Big change is the answer. If you think the council’s priorities should change, and want a stronger philanthropic sector, then get involved. We are only as strong as the members who engage with us.

I believe that we can nurture a council where philanthropic leaders shape the future of our sector, a place where we forge collaborations, confront challenges, and advance our common interests.

Change is never easy. But philanthropy will always be stronger, more potent, and more just when we recognize our differences but stand together as one sector, one field, and one council.

Vikki Spruill

Chief Executive

Council on Foundations

Arlington, Va.