December 17, 2012

Council on Foundations 'Redesigns' Organization and Sheds 19 Jobs

The Council on Foundations, an organization that represents many of the nation's biggest grant makers, has eliminated 19 positions in the last two months, part of a "redesign" its president says will enable the organization to better serve its members.

In an interview, Vikki Spruill, who has led the association since July, said the change was driven by a need to work differently, not a decision to cut certain services or programs. The council, she said, would focus on better anticipating the needs of member foundations and would be creating up to a dozen positions next year that fit that new approach.

"It's a different business model, and we need different skills and competencies to support a new business model," she said.

The organization, Ms. Spruill said, would also aim to be less "hierarchical." As an example, she said the council eliminated its chief operating officer position as it moves away from a more-traditional structure.

The council has faced challenges attracting and retaining members, its membership falling to about 1,700 from 2,000 in 2007. Last year, it ran a $3.5-million operating deficit. It now employs 47 people, compared with about 65 a year-and-a-half ago and 105 before the recession.

Ms. Spruill said the changes were not a response to financial problems. The council anticipates a much smaller operating loss, of about $750,000, in 2012, and is budgeting for a loss of roughly $396,000 next year. "We are on very strong financial footing," she said.

A 'Fork in the Road'

Ms. Spruill informed council members of the changes in an e-mail that said "several positions" had been eliminated and described a new model that will "operate as the hub of the largest, most connected philanthropic network in the world—one that is designed to foster more meaningful, intentional partnerships between our staff and each of you as we link you to others who share your specific priorities."

Terry Mazany, president of the Chicago Community Trust and a council board member, said the changes may seem abstract for now, but that they are designed to help the council stay relevant in an era where "more is being asked of philanthropy than ever before."

He and other board members said they were pleased by the changes; Mr. Mazany called them "overdue."

He said the council faced a "fork in the road." Staying on its present course of being a "traditional trade association where the value is coming together to basically celebrate the sector" would have put the organization on a path to obsolescence, he said.

"I wish they had embraced this choice five years ago because I think they would be better positioned," he said.

Nina Stack, president of the Council of New Jersey Grantmakers and a Council on Foundations trustee, said it would be wrong to suggest that the changes were about getting rid of some staff members and bringing in new people.

"The board was really deliberate in hiring a leader who could re-imagine an organization," said Ms. Stack. "That is what they wanted and that is what they got with Vikki. She has done the work to understand where the council was, where its strengths were, and where it can be."

With the new model, Ms. Stack said, the council would strive to work more closely with other grant-making associations like her own. An example of the council's value came after Hurricane Sandy, she said, when its employees connected Ms. Stack with the appropriate officials at the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Sherece West, president of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and a former council trustee, said she also supported the direction in which Ms. Spruill seems to be taking the organization. Ms. West said the council president called her this past week to discuss the changes.

"She needs to build her team around that direction," Ms. West said. Five months, she said, is too soon to expect a detailed strategic plan. "It requires some patience and giving someone an opportunity."

Send an e-mail to Caroline Preston