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Dispatch From the Frontlines: Council on Foundations' 2013 Annual Conference

April 08, 2013

(Long-time PhilanTopic contributor Michael Seltzer is a trustee of EMpower-the Emerging Markets Foundation and a distinguished lecturer at the Baruch College School of Public Affairs of the City University of New York. He filed this report earlier today from Chicago, site of the Council on Foundation's 2013 annual conference.)

COF- three-mayorsEach year, several thousand grantmakers from around the globe come together at the Council on Foundations' annual meeting to learn, discuss, and network. This week, more than 1,200 donors from 47 states and 17 countries have gathered here in Chicago. Reflective, perhaps, of a longer-term shift in wealth accumulation and the creation of new foundations, the states/regions with the greatest representation here are (host state) Illinois, California, New York, and Washington, D.C., while Canada, Brazil, Mexico, and Great Britain top the list of countries represented at the conference. Another indicator of the changing composition of the field is evident in the large number of new faces. Take it from this philanthropy veteran, a new generation of grantmakers has arrived.

Paul Ylvisaker, the late Ford Foundation officer and a mentor to many veteran foundation leaders, once described foundations as "the passing lane" on the highway to a better world. Entrance ramps to that highway were quite evident in the opening sessions of this week's gathering.

On Saturday, at the annual gathering of the Association of Black Foundation Executives, Maya Wiley, founder and president of the Center for Social Inclusion, focused her remarks on the opportunities available to philanthropy to support solutions to the challenges facing the soon-to-be "majority minority" population in America: people of color. Wiley highlighted examples of grassroots leaders across the country who are working to implement innovative public policies in their communities, cities, and states -- and, through a combination of vision, effective community organizing, and thought leadership, are succeeding in mitigating the structural barriers that for too long have denied access to equal opportunity for people of color, women, and others.

The next day, at the opening plenary (which was moderated by Joyce Foundation president Ellen Alberding), "The Three Mayors” -- Michael Nutter of Philadelphia, Mitch Landrieu of New Orleans, and Rahm Emanuel of Chicago -- echoed Wiley’s message that social change is not only within our reach, it is happening under our noses. Each painfully recounted how alienated teenagers and young men today have turned to guns rather than yesterday's fistfights to settle their disputes, creating a "plague" of gun-related violence in our cities' African-American neighborhoods. But the three also outlined a number of strategies implemented by their respective administrations that, so far in 2013, have proven to be effective in reducing gun-related homicides and shootings.

While the mayors' remarks resonated with those in attendance, conference attendees will long remember the stirring musical performance turned in by the Soul Children of Chicago. The organization -- which uses music to motivate young people to have faith in themselves, each other, and God -- is just one example (albeit an especially inspiring one) of a grantmaker-supported organization that is actually helping African-American youth succeed in life.

Hope and inspiration. It's been a theme of the conference so far, and it reminds me of what philanthropy can accomplish when it seeks out and supports the "possibilists," a term popularized by UC-Berkeley professor John Powell. Indeed, one antidote to the disgust created by what passes for political discourse these days can be found in the uplifting stories told by changemakers on the ground who are crafting actual solutions to real problems and urging others to get involved. Because, as John Powell might say, if we stand together, we can accomplish pretty much anything.

-- Michael Seltzer

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Plan is a Canadian charity for child sponsorship and a global movement for change, mobilizing millions of people around the world to support social justice for children in need in developing countries.

It is great to hear about your wonderful work!

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