Leadership or the next big thing?
February 4th, 2008When I attended my first national conference for community foundations back in October 1987, there was a real effort to try to understand how grants could make a difference and while asset size of the foundation was important, it was not the only focus. It was a breath of fresh air as I had just left the United Way where I worked for 9 years where there seemed to be a focus on what "Metro size" the organization was and each national conference had a new theme for locals to want to emulate. Things like each community "should" have an Information and Referral line (now 211), be actively involved in "community problem solving", a beginning glimmer of donor choice and of course to raise more money from the business community.
This isn't a commentary on United Way but it is a cautionary post for the field of community foundations.
The community foundation field spent much of the 1990's adjusting its focus from community impact to trying to look like the financial services industry in response to the creation of commercial donor advised funds through Fidelity, Vanguard and many of the big national investment firms. There was no way our field could compete with that but oh my how they did try! At our national conferences, the conversations were all about growing assets and that donor services and eliminating program staff was the "wave of the future" by creating donor services positions. Imagine my dismay when this was seen as the way to organize ourselves solely!
I was the chair of the Council on Foundations Community Foundations Committee during that time (now known as the Leadership Team) and we experienced tremendous pressure from the larger community foundations to separate from the Council to try to create an organization to help "combat" these huge commercial competitors. In fact, some of the foundations did create a separate organization called the Community Foundations of America that existed for a few years serving just community foundations but it did not accomplish what was once envisioned and is now known as GivingNet and they have expanded to serve other types of philanthropy. Possibly the original role was too narrow and/or perhaps the persons who created it did not really have an articulated shared vision at that time - who knows.
Here is where I am going with this post: Back a few years ago, a program officer at the Mott Foundation, Elan Garonzik, was instrumental in commissioning a study and report to, as he told me, help community foundations respond in a more positive way when faced with unanticipated competition and surprising events. The Mott Foundation and Ford Foundation funded two brilliant researchers and futurists Katherine Fulton and Lucy Bernholz to conduct this research and they did a great job leading to a report entitled "On the Brink of New Promise".
In this report issued back three years ago trends were noted affecting community foundations and how to anticipate changes in the environment. The way to differentiate our foundations was to focus on providing leadership on key community issues. I wrote about this back on September 28, 2006 and I said that it was like "Back to the Future". This meant that we had returned to understanding that our role is to focus on our community and find ways to address issues not abandoning our key role in working with donors who want to be connected with causes and issues. What a perfect partnership! I had always thought that if donors can see how their assets invested in the community foundation make a positive impact, then they would continue to invest and contribute.
I cautioned my colleagues two years ago to not make the community leadership role as the next "wave" of how community foundations need to behave just had been done in the late 1990's with the emphasis on donor services and flexible donor advised funds. There is no silver bullet in growing community foundations and each is different depending on the community (well yeah!) and the leadership.
I am concerned that "community leadership" is going to be diminished ultimately if it is touted as the next big thing! At the Grand Rapids Community Foundation it has always been part of our DNA and we have always focused not only on our donors but the entire community. Having just responded to a first draft of a national thought piece focusing on community leadership by a very good organization that is partnering with the Council on Foundations, my caution is that the community leadership role is not new and should not be seen as the next best thing or it will go the way of all the things termed "the next best thing"!