Foundations are not institutions set apart from society and its problems, and grant makers can and should be involved in the fight for a more just and equitable world, Gara LaMarche, president of Atlantic Philanthropies, and Benjamin Jealous, head of the NAACP, told young foundation officials at the closing session of the first conference of the group Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy.
Mr. LaMarche, president of Atlantic Philanthropies, spoke about how his years working for groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and Human Rights Watch were not so different from his time as a grant maker.
Mr. LaMarche said he was always reluctant to go into philanthropy because he saw it as a "cozy sinecure" detached from the world's problems.
But he said grant makers have a set of tools to effect social change just like groups such as the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, and that in his foundation role he can use his voice and influence in behalf of such activist groups and their struggle for justice.
"My philanthropy and my activist days—they are the same," he said.
Mr. LaMarche also shared his concerns about the growing emphasis on effectiveness in philanthropy, something he said felt "rather disconnected" from concerns about values.
Measuring effectiveness is important, he said, but grant makers should not forget what they value and what is driving them in the search for effective programs and ways to assess them.
But Mr. LaMarche also celebrated what he called the "resurgence" of social-justice philanthropy. Social justice is one of the themes of the Council on Foundation's conference here, and grant makers are helping to build more support for human rights and equality, Mr. LaMarche said.
In considering how generational change will alter foundations, Mr. LaMarche said it was important to remember that older workers may have trouble finding new roles.
Younger professionals often want their elders to just get out of the way, he said, but the bridges for older people to still contribute while making way for young people don't exist. Foundations need to help create those bridges, Mr. LaMarche said.
Among his other suggestions for young nonprofit professionals:
Don't accept the status quo. No one would have anticipated a few years ago that Atlantic would be at the forefront of social-change philanthropy, he said, but under his leadership the grant maker took a leading role in health-care advocacy, he said.
Balance strategy with values. "Be strategic," he said, "but within a framework of values that recognize that sometimes you have to throw the plan out the window."
Many young people have already "emerged," and older people are "emerging at all stages of life." "I've made profound mistakes as recently as Friday," he said.
Mr. Jealous, who led the Rosenberg Foundation before taking over at the NAACP, joked that while at the foundation he often felt like he was "in embalming fluid."
But the reality, he said, "is that philanthropy very much should be part of the fight."
He stressed that two of the keys to activism and creating social change are listening and not making assumptions about who will or will not support you.
To illustrate his point about the importance of listening, Mr. Jealous talked about a march for racial equality he helped to organize in Mississippi in 1993.
Mr. Jealous said he looked to Earth Day activists to find white liberals in Mississippi who could attend the rally. But he and his co-organizers found an unusual ally in a white used-car salesman at a waffle restaurant, someone who Mr. Jealous and his peers first thought had been trying to kill them.
Finding that courage to listen to people who are not like you, he said, is "being really clear about the change you want to make before you die."
Said Mr. Jealous: "If you're in a job and you don't feel like you know the change you want to make, figure it out or, if need be, switch jobs."
Mr. Jealous also talked about the rise of the Tea Party movement and how the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza, and other organizations plan to organize a march in November to talk about racial issues and tensions in the country.