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And the Oscar for Philanthropic Leadership Goes to...

March 25, 2011

Oscar_statue Philanthropy, by nature, is a field of followers more than leaders. And maybe that's the way it should be. Foundations, by and large, support others to do the work. Their role is to spot innovation, tireless dedication, courage, and determination and to back them with resources, critical feedback, and solidarity.

We hear talk here and there about so-and-so's "legacy," and the NonProfit Times publishes its annual "Power and Influence Top 50." Nonprofits frequently honor their biggest donors at benefits and many have received one of those awards passed out at the annual gathering of the tribe sponsored by the Council on Foundations. (Note: in recent years the council has cut back on the numbers of such awards.)

Let's suppose we were to award an Oscar to best philanthropic leader of the year? Who would it go to? I offer five quotes from my nominee:

"To my mind, it is not merely the money that the foundations give, but this stimulus and encouragement, the feeling that there is somebody that you can go to and say, 'I know this is a very difficult thing, and I am going to get into a lot of trouble and get you into a lot of trouble, probably. But here is something that ought to be tried.'"

"...It is in the interests of the American people to keep the door open to every inquiry which conceivably in the mind of some qualified person may add to the sum of human knowledge."

"I think [foundations] are entering into the most difficult of all fields....They are going right straight ahead, knowing that their fingers will be burned again, because in these fields you cannot be sure of your results, and you cannot be sure that you will avoid risk. If the boundaries of knowledge are pushed back and back and back so that our ignorance of ourselves and our fellow man and of other nations is steadily reduced, there is hope for mankind, and unless those boundaries are pushed back there is no hope."

"So far as there is a justification -- and I am sure there is -- for the existence of these institutions, it is that they serve the public good. If they are not willing to tell what they do to serve the public good, then as far as I am concerned they ought to be closed down. And I say that partly because the welfare of these great constructive foundations...and their opportunity for usefulness, are constantly threatened by a confusion in the minds of the people about what is a foundation."

"I would go a step further and say that, since I believe in private enterprise, foundations can do what government cannot."

The envelope please! The year: 1952. The nominee: Russell C. Leffingwell, chairman, board of trustees, the Carnegie Corporation. Mr. Leffingwell was a Republican banker who had the courage to make statements such as these during the McCarthy-era Cox Commission hearings, in which a number of congressmen accused the country's most prestigious foundations of supporting "un-American activities."

Surely that fits anyone's definition of "leadership under pressure."

Mr. Leffingwell also famously said, "We think that the foundation should have glass pockets," a quote cited at the Foundation Center's creation (in the wake of the Cox and Reece hearings) in 1956. It also served as our inspiration in creating the Glasspockets Web site, in the belief that transparency is the best defense for philanthropy, an idea as salient today as it was in the l950s.

So who would you nominate for best philanthropic leader of the year (foundation-affiliated or otherwise)? Use the comments section (anonymously, if you'd like) to share your suggestions. And feel free to include supporting quotes!

-- Bradford Smith

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Ralph Smith

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