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51 posts categorized "author-Michael Seltzer"

Newsmakers: Darren Walker, President, Ford Foundation

September 21, 2015

Headshot_darren_walkerPhilanTopic is on vacation this week. While we're away, we'll be sharing some of our favorite posts from the last year or three. This post was originally published in December 2013. Enjoy.

In September, Darren Walker became the tenth president of the Ford Foundation. Before coming to Ford, where he was vice president of the foundation's Education, Creativity, and Freedom of Expression program, Walker served as vice president for foundation initiatives at the Rockefeller Foundation and as chief operating officer of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, where he guided the organization's efforts to develop housing for low and moderate-income families in Harlem.

Recently, Michael Seltzer, a frequent contributor to PhilanTopic, spoke with Walker about the current social change environment, the influence of the foundation's activities on his life, and his hopes for the foundation going forward. Seltzer is a distinguished lecturer at the Baruch College School of Public Affairs and an affiliated faculty member of its Center for Nonprofit Strategy & Management.

Philanthropy News Digest: What is it like to be president of the Ford Foundation?

Darren Walker: Although I've been at the foundation for more than three years, in many ways I still have a lot to learn. I certainly didn't arrive here with any idea I would end up as president. When I walked through the doors of this institution for the first time, it was a transformational experience, because the Ford Foundation represents the ways in which my own life has been changed by philanthropy.

I'm a graduate of public schools. I attended public school in a small town in Texas, and I am also a graduate of the first Head Start cohort, a program that was developed out of Ford Foundation-supported research on early child development at Yale University. After high school, I attended a large land grant university -- thanks to Pell grants, another Ford Foundation-supported intervention -- so I know all about Ford's commitment to public education in this country.

After college, I worked on Wall Street and one day found myself at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, which was hosting a representative of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a creation of -- you guessed it -- the Ford Foundation. LISC had awarded a grant to the Abyssinian Development Corporation for capacity-building initiatives that would allow it to realize the aspirations of the organization's founders, who had a dream in the mid-'80s that Harlem could be a community that could regenerate itself from within. And the Ford Foundation, through LISC, believed in that dream and invested in it. And that capacity-building grant made it possible for ADC to hire me. So my journey, like the journeys of so many others, has been deeply influenced by the Ford Foundation.

I was thrilled to receive a call from the foundation's board chair, Irene Hirano-Inouye, and have her tell me that the board had voted to appoint me president. Actually, I wasn't sure how to respond, beyond saying, "Yes!" because I know that with this job comes huge responsibility, and that I stand on the shoulders of some extraordinary people.

PND: The Ford Foundation has been a long-distance runner when it comes to addressing social issues like poverty. Today, we face some of the most serious social challenges we've seen since the 1960s -- both in terms of holding the line on the progress we've made and in putting forward new solutions designed to help low-income individuals and communities build assets and resilience. Are you discouraged by the magnitude of the challenges we face?

DW: It's easy to be dismayed by the current state of social justice in our country and around the world. But it is important to remember the remarkable progress we have made. There was a time, not too long ago, when every indicator of social mobility for low-income and marginalized communities was improving -- employment among urban black males in the 1990s saw tremendous gains, we saw significant reductions in the level of homelessness, and more African-Americans and Latinos were matriculating to institutions of higher education. Although it wasn't always even, for almost forty years, from the early 1960s through the 1990s, we saw progress. We've fallen back some, so it's particularly important we remember that history and not be discouraged. A certain set of circumstances contributed to the conditions which prevail today. That said, we have faced these problems before and made huge progress in addressing them, and we can do so again.

I am actually hopeful and quite excited about what the Ford Foundation can do to address some of these challenges. There are thousands of new foundations out there, and together we have an opportunity and the potential to make a tremendous difference in the lives of poor and vulnerable people. That is very exciting. So, no, I am not discouraged. I am energized. We have work to do, but as Martin Luther King, Jr. asserted, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." The journey toward justice is a two-steps-forward, one-step-back affair. That process will always be with us.

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Newsmakers: Darren Walker, President, Ford Foundation

December 18, 2013

Headshot_darren_walkerIn September, Darren Walker became the tenth president of the Ford Foundation. Before coming to Ford, where he was vice president of the foundation's Education, Creativity, and Freedom of Expression program, Walker served as vice president for foundation initiatives at the Rockefeller Foundation and as chief operating officer of the Abyssinian Development Corporation, where he guided the organization's efforts to develop housing for low and moderate-income families in Harlem.

Recently, Michael Seltzer, a frequent contributor to PhilanTopic, spoke with Walker about the current social change environment, the influence of the foundation's activities on his life, and his hopes for the foundation going forward. Seltzer is a distinguished lecturer at the Baruch College School of Public Affairs and an affiliated faculty member of its Center for Nonprofit Strategy & Management.

Philanthropy News Digest: What is it like to be president of the Ford Foundation?

Darren Walker: Although I've been at the foundation for more than three years, in many ways I still have a lot to learn. I certainly didn't arrive here with any idea I would end up as president. When I walked through the doors of this institution for the first time, it was a transformational experience, because the Ford Foundation represents the ways in which my own life has been changed by philanthropy.

I'm a graduate of public schools. I attended public school in a small town in Texas, and I am also a graduate of the first Head Start cohort, a program that was developed out of Ford Foundation-supported research on early child development at Yale University. After high school, I attended a large land grant university -- thanks to Pell grants, another Ford Foundation-supported intervention -- so I know all about Ford's commitment to public education in this country.

After college, I worked on Wall Street and one day found myself at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, which was hosting a representative of the Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a creation of -- you guessed it -- the Ford Foundation. LISC had awarded a grant to the Abyssinian Development Corporation for capacity-building initiatives that would allow it to realize the aspirations of the organization's founders, who had a dream in the mid-'80s that Harlem could be a community that could regenerate itself from within. And the Ford Foundation, through LISC, believed in that dream and invested in it. And that capacity-building grant made it possible for ADC to hire me. So my journey, like the journeys of so many others, has been deeply influenced by the Ford Foundation.

I was thrilled to receive a call from the foundation's board chair, Irene Hirano-Inouye, and have her tell me that the board had voted to appoint me president. Actually, I wasn't sure how to respond, beyond saying, "Yes!" because I know that with this job comes huge responsibility, and that I stand on the shoulders of some extraordinary people.

Continue reading »

After a Gay-Rights Victory, a New Challenge for Grantmakers

July 04, 2013

(Michael Seltzer is a distinguished lecturer at the Baruch College School of Public Affairs at the City University of New York and a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. A version of this commentary was published by the Chronicle of Philanthropy earlier in the week.)

Supreme_Court-Gay_MarriageTwo days before the 44th anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which occurred on the streets of my neighborhood, Greenwich Village, the Supreme Court ruled that the Defense of Marriage Act violates the Constitution and that states have the right to pass same-sex marriage laws.

While the decision came on the heels of a Supreme Court decision that dealt an unconscionable blow to voting rights, the court's decision on same-sex marriage will go down as one of the most significant and historic civil-rights victories in our lifetimes.

It also is a moment for philanthropy to reflect on its power to further social justice. Nonprofits, with the support of foundations, paved the way for the decision. But individual donors and foundations have more work to do to help ensure full equality for all Americans, regardless of race or sexual orientation.

It was Stonewall, after all, that led to the birth of hundreds of grassroots nonprofit organizations dedicated to working on behalf of gay people victimized by flagrant discrimination and outright hostility.

In Philadelphia, where I lived in the 1970s, the first LGBT organizations to open their doors included the Eromin Center (an acronym for "erotic minorities"), which provided mental-health services; CALM (Custody Action for Lesbian Mothers), which assisted lesbian mothers caught in legal battles over custody of their children; and the Gay Activists Alliance.

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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.

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Redefining Today’s Business Landscape: A Q&A With David Vidal, Corporate Sustainability Thought Leader

March 12, 2013

Headshot_David_VidalDavid J. Vidal, a leading expert on the role of business in society, has over the course of a forty-year career served as a senior fellow with the Conference Board Initiative on Sustainability, as vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations, as assistant vice president at Continental Insurance, and as director of public affairs for the Partnership for New York City, a CEO-led civic, housing, and education group. Vidal also is active in industry leadership activities as a member of the judge's panel of the CERES-ACCA Sustainability Reporting Awards, the Newsweek/Daily Beast Green Rankings Advisory Panel, the Giving USA Advisory Council on Methodology, and the U.S. Advisory Council of the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI).

Recently, Michael Seltzer, distinguished lecturer at the Baruch College School of Public Affairs and a frequent contributor to PhilanTopic, spoke with Vidal about the corporate sustainability landscape.

Philanthropy News Digest: Corporate engagement in society appears to be in tremendous flux, partly as a result of greater demands for corporate accountability. From your vantage point, what's going on in CEO suites?

David Vidal: The corporate contributions function has been overtaken by the broader business social accountability movement. Forward-looking business leaders are concerned today with a growing array of stakeholders and publics. Yesterday's focus on solely producing shareholder value is no longer sufficient. If you open a corporate annual report today, you will more often see a letter from the CEO addressed to shareholders and stakeholders.

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The Case for Using a Social Justice Lens in Grantmaking

August 21, 2012

(Over the course of his career, Michael Seltzer, a frequent contributor to PhilanTopic, has served as a program officer at the Ford Foundation, as president of the New York Regional Association of Grantmakers, and as founding executive director of Funders Concerned About AIDS. A version of this post appears in the summer issue of GMNsight, a new journal written for and by members of the Grants Managers Network.)

Social Justice -- A New Phenomenon?

Social_justiceNo. As early as 1972, in an internal memo to John H. Knowles, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, one of his officers suggested that the foundation use the phrase "Towards Social Justice in an Interdependent World" as a 'unifying theme' to describe its work.

Also, in the 1970s, select small- to medium-sized public, family, independent, and public foundations embraced the practice, language, and ethos of social justice, as evidenced by their early support of the U.S. civil rights movement. Their ranks included such private foundations as Norman, Field, Stern, New World, Taconic, and the John Hay Whitney. Subsequently, the public foundations that comprised the Funding Exchange Network -- the Tides Foundation; women's and LGBT funders such as the Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice; and the Black United Fund movement -- joined their ranks. David Hunter, Stern's long-term executive director, served as a mentor and guide for many of these funds. The word justice also appeared in the literature of religiously affiliated grantmakers such as the Catholic Campaign for Human Development of the U.S. Catholic Bishops and the Jewish Fund for Justice. This was not surprising, since the precepts of justice are evident in the world's major religions and sacred texts.

Subsequently, this diverse set of donors, in terms of their structure and sources of revenues, began to meet annually under the aegis of the National Network of Change-Oriented Foundations. In 1981, the network's successor organization, the National Network of Foundations (NNG), asserted the following two purposes in its mandate:

To be a voice for issues of social and economic justice within the philanthropic community and externally in sectors of the broad community including government, business, labor and education, and to expand the resource base (human and financial) for social and economic justice activities.

As one indicator of the size of this community of funders, also in 1981 the National Network of Grantmakers and the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO) in their publication, The Grantseekers Guide, A Directory for Social and Economic Justice Projects, listed more than one hundred foundations and corporate-giving programs.

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Poverty in America: A Conversation With David R. Jones, President, Community Service Society of New York

December 05, 2011

David_jones_css(On Thanksgiving Day, the New York Times noted in a lead editorial that "one in three Americans -- 100 million -- is either poor or perilously close to it." The editors at the Times based that assertion on an analysis of recent U.S. Census Bureau data. Two days earlier, D.C.-based Wider Opportunities for Women published an even higher figure -- 45 percent -- as the percentage of the nation's residents lacking economic security. Whatever the exact number, it's clear that millions of Americans are stranded on islands of economic desolation marked by failing schools, sub-standard housing, inadequate healthcare services, and rampant crime.)

Struggling to make ends meet has been a characteristic of life in the United States since its founding. Recent Census figures suggest, however, that the number of Americans living in poverty has reached "an historic high of 46.2 million." According to another study from the Brookings Institution, the number of Americans living in communities where poverty is "extreme" -- neighborhoods in which at least 40 percent of the population is poor -- soared by one-third between 2000 to 2009. Brookings, which based its study on 2000-2009 income data from the census, notes that the increase over the last decade erases all the economic gains of the 1990s.

Regular contributor Michael Seltzer recently spoke with David R. Jones, president of the Community Service Society of New York and one of the nation's leading advocates on behalf of the poor, about his thoughts on poverty in America and what the growing ranks of low-income New Yorkers can do to escape their predicament.

Michael Seltzer: According to a Brookings Institution study released on November 3, the number of Americans living in poverty has grown by more than a third over the past decade. In New York City alone, 1.6 million people -- approximately one in five New Yorkers -- are living below the poverty line. What are the consequences of that for New York?

David Jones: Those statistics are terrifying on a number of levels. The poverty level is the same in Manhattan as in rural Mississippi. However, the housing costs in rural Mississippi, obviously, are dramatically lower than in New York. A family of three can buy a lot more goods and services in Mississippi on $17,500 dollars a year than can a family living in Manhattan.

MS: What is the role of the Community Service Society in addressing the economic problems faced by low-income New Yorkers?

DJ: Throughout our hundred-and-seventy-year history, poverty has been our exclusive focus. Our founders perceived poverty in urban areas as a potential danger to civic order. They understood that as more and more people drift into poverty, key elements of the economy and our democracy are undermined. They believed strongly that if you didn't provide low-income people with economic opportunity, you were endangering the civic fabric. And in a multi-ethnic city like New York, keeping the civic fabric in good repair is vital. For those reasons and others, we have always taken a three-pronged approach to our work: research, service, and public education.

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Remembering Ruth Brinker

August 29, 2011

(Michael Seltzer is a frequent contributor to PhilanTopic. In his last post, he wrote about philanthropy and the LGBT rights movement.)

Ruth_Brinker When Ruth Brinker founded Project Open Hand in San Francisco in 1985, she could not have foreseen the day that the nation's leading meals-on-wheels program for people living with AIDS would become a disaster-relief organization.

Four years later, on October 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake struck Northern California. The Marina district of San Francisco was particularly devastated. Numerous homes were destroyed or damaged, leaving residents without food or shelter. Like many other nimble nonprofit organizations, Project Open Hand acted quickly. From its kitchen in the Mission District, which had come through the quake unscathed, volunteers rushed to deliver meals to earthquake survivors using BART. In many cases, Project Open Hand was the first organization to arrive on the scene with assistance.

When I first heard this story, I was serving as the executive director of Funders Concerned About AIDS and was reminded of words from the report of the Presidential Commission on the Human Immunodeficiency Virus issued on June 24, 1988. In the report, Admiral James D. Watkins, whom President Ronald Reagan had appointed to chair the commission, noted that "The spark of human spirit...rises high when faced with the gravest of human tragedies...."

Earlier this month, Ruth Brinker passed away peacefully at the Eden Villa Assisted Living Center in San Francisco. In the difficult days ahead, as people up and down the Eastern Seaboard scramble to recover from the damage caused by Hurrican Irene, Brinker's spirit will live on in the small acts of countless neighbors and nonprofit organizations across the region.

Below is a tribute to Ruth from Tom Nolan, Project Open Hand's current executive director.

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The Next Frontier: Philanthropy and the LGBT Civil Rights Movement

July 02, 2011

(Michael Seltzer was one of the founders of Funders for Lesbian and Gay Issues. A frequent contributor to PhilanTopic, he wrote about nonprofits and "dirty money" in his last post.)

Gay_rainbow_flag As midnight approached on June 25, a mere three days shy of the 42nd anniversary of the birth of the modern gay rights movement, New York governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law legislation allowing same-sex marriage. After years of advocacy and hard work, gay marriage was legal in the Empire State.

Of course, a sterling group of nonprofit LGBT and civil rights organizations, including Lambda Legal, Freedom to Marry, the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Empire State Pride Agenda, the Human Rights Campaign, and others, worked behind the scenes to bring about this momentous event -- in New York as well as other states. Private foundations such as the Walter & Elise Haas Fund, the Gill Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, the Columbia Foundation, and the Overbrook Foundation also played a significant role.

As a result, gay couples in New York now have rights that were previously available only to heterosexual married couples. In terms of public housing regulations, for example, any member of a tenant's family, including a spouse, "shall succeed to the rights of a tenant where the tenant has permanently vacated the housing accommodation and such family member has resided with the tenant in the housing accommodation for a period of no less than two years."

While the significance of the legislation in New York cannot be overstated, much remains to be done. Only five other states (Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont) and the District of Columbia have similar laws, while twenty-nine states have on the books legislation that defines marriage as being between a man and woman. Twelve other states have banned recognition of same-sex marriage altogether.

Given the current state of affairs, what can nonprofit organizations, corporations, and foundations do in the years ahead to advance same-sex marriage legislation in other states and help ensure equality under the law for all LGBT Americans? Here are a few ideas:

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5Qs for...Ana Oliveira, President/Chief Executive Officer, New York Women's Foundation

April 13, 2011

Oliviera_ana (Under the leadership of Ana Oliveira, the New York Women's Foundation has established itself as the key institutional opinion leader on issues facing women, girls, and their families in New York City. Last week, more than five hundred people from more than sixty countries gathered at the Brooklyn Marriott in New York for the annual meeting of the Women's Funding Network (WFN), whose board Oliveira chairs. Frequent contributor Michael Seltzer interviewed Oliveira on the eve of the conference.)

Philanthropy News Digest: A few weeks ago, Iman al-Obeidi, a postgraduate Libyan law student, courageously confronted Muammar Gaddafi's henchmen in a hotel room in Tripoli that the Western press was using as a base of operations. In the process, al-Obeidi, who earlier had been gang-raped and beaten, succeeded in exposing the brutality of the Libyan regime to the world. How is it that women burdened by such oppression and brutality are able to find their voice?

Ana Oliveira: The violence committed against Iman al-Obeidi reveals the depth of the role of women as pillars of society. Women's bodies are a battlefield. And, it pains me to say, seeking to destroy or violate or hurt or devalue women is part and parcel of the breaking down of communities, cultures, and societies in times of war.

PND: Are we seeing an escalation of violence against women?

AO: Rape has been with us throughout history. It is a weapon of war. What we are seeing now is an increase in all forms of sexual violence, an increase in murderous conflicts, an increase in systemic genocide against women. Women are often both the first line of defense and the first to be attacked. But women around the globe are rising up, and they will continue to rise up. They must, in order to survive and make a better world for themselves. We saw it in Chile under Pinochet and in Argentina under the military dictatorship in the 1970s. And we are seeing it today across North Africa, where women are playing a pivotal role in the struggle for democracy.

PND: Let's talk about the United States. How does your organization address the issue of violence against women in New York City?

AO: Funding from the New York Women's Foundation is very much based on the principle of the integrity and wholeness of women's lives, women's leadership, and women's economic and physical security, otherwise known as safety. But it's more than just freedom from violence; we're talking about the ability to thrive, personally and as fully integrated members of a larger community. We support low-income women who organize themselves into community-based organizations, who embody the same spirit of resistance to the status quo as their historic and contemporary counterparts, who ignite in each other a sense of collective power.

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'Dirty' Money

March 10, 2011

(Michael Seltzer is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. His last post featured a Q&A with Jennifer Buffett, president and co-chair of the NoVo Foundation.)

Cigs-and-money An article in Monday's New York Times ("Mexican Church Takes a Closer Look at Donors") focuses on an issue that's as old as philanthropy itself. Should a nonprofit's leadership decline a gift when a donor's activities run counter to the organization's mission? To put it another way, to what extent was Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite and a highly successful manufacturer of armaments, hoping to burnish his reputation as the man "who became rich by finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before" by creating the Nobel Prize? And does anyone care 115 years after the Swedish chemist's death?

Damien Cave, the reporter who wrote the piece in the Times, begins the article with an anecdote about a shiny, new Roman Catholic chapel in Pachuca, Mexico. Nothing unusual about that in a country which takes its religion seriously, except perhaps for the donor who made it possible: one Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano, leader of the Zetas, a ruthless drug trafficking syndicate. Indeed, the narcotraficante's support is acknowledged by a bronze plaque on the chapel's exterior engraved with a line from Psalm 143: "Lord, hear my prayer, answer my plea" -- a gruesome bit of irony given that Lazcano is known locally as "the executioner." Having gotten wind of it, Cave reports, embarrassed officials of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico have begun to question the Church's longstanding acceptance of "narco alms" and its historic ties to drug traffickers.

In both good and lean economic times (but especially the latter), temptation, like the wolf in the Three Little Pigs fairy tale, knocks on many a nonprofit door. I recall vividly, many decades later, the words of a civil rights leader in the South who declared, "The problem with tainted money is 'tain't' enough." I've also heard firsthand from many nonprofits that have struggled with this decision and/or declined financial support from a funding source whose practices were perceived to be in direct conflict with the organization's values. Let's face it, these are treacherous waters for an organization’s leadership, and the chances of running afoul of key external stakeholders, especially donors, is great.

Consider these scenarios:

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Q&A: Jennifer Buffett, President and Co-Chair, NoVo Foundation

December 16, 2010

Since the beginning of organized philanthropy in the United States, women have been counted among the most effective advocates for the concept of "private dollars for the public good." Early on, far-sighted pioneers such as Margaret Olivia Sage, who established the Russell Sage Foundation in 1907 for "the improvement of social and living conditions in the United States," and Alva Vanderbilt, who helped fund the suffragette movement in the early twentieth century, demonstrated through their actions the power of the biblical injunction “to those whom much has been given, much is expected.”

When Warren Buffett stood on stage at the New York Public Library on June 26, 2006, and made public his historic decision to donate the majority of his fortune to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the press focused on the magnitude of the gift (over $30 billion) and the implications for philanthropy, at home and abroad. Little note was made at the time of the smaller yet substantial gifts Buffett made to the foundations established by his three children, including a gift of $1 billion to his youngest son Peter's NoVo Foundation. Today, the NoVo Foundation awards approximately $55 million in grants annually in three areas: encouraging social/emotional learning, seeding a local living economy movement, and empowering women and girls worldwide.

Frequent contributor Michael Seltzer interviewed Jennifer Buffett, president of the foundation, in November.

Jennifer_buffett Philanthropy News Digest: You and I were both present at the New York Public Library on the day your father-in-law announced he had decided to give the majority of his fortune to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. What was going through your mind as you sat in the audience?

Jennifer Buffett: That this was the beginning of a new chapter in our lives. We knew that, based on the work we had done up to that point as a smaller foundation, we were being given an incredibly unique opportunity to step up our philanthropy -- to be as cutting edge, thoughtful, and strategic as we could be.

And what was going through my mind was that we suddenly had an enormous opportunity to invest real resources to catalyze change during a unique time in the history of the country and the planet. I didn't know then what we'd focus on or how we'd go about doing it, but I knew that we would be putting a lot of hard work and energy into going deep to figure it out. We also had a clean slate -- no existing board of directors, or mandate from on high, or somebody else's vision to fulfill. All my father-in-law asked was that we try and focus our resources and understand the difference we were trying to make and to stick with it. He also encouraged us to take risks.

PND: What has changed in the four and a half years since you've been at the helm of the foundation?

JB: A lot. But the most important thing has been our development of a clear vision and framework in terms of how we view our opportunities and understand the world. Peter and I knew early on that we wanted to support holistic and human-centered solutions -- and that those seemed to be interventions that were sustainable and had great and lasting potential. We believe that people internalize and carry forward real change, and that relationships and systems need to be carefully considered any time one intervenes, no matter how well-meaning one is. Considering the "how" is just as important as the "what" one does or focuses on.

We knew we wanted to get at the root of the problems we face and not fund top-down "productized" interventions that made us feel good about ourselves in terms of "x" amount of things we distributed in some far-off region or social environment we didn't understand. We care about so many issues -- poverty, health, education, the environment, social justice, and human rights -- and we saw them as linked. People asked us what "things" we would focus on. After a while, we realized that was probably not the right question. We thought that if we focused on girls and women, who were being left out of decision-making and were severely undervalued and -resourced, we could touch on all these issues in some way and that all boats would rise. Even today, I believe we are the largest foundation that defines its primary mission as empowering girls and women as agents of global change.

We also decided to work to promote a "whole child education" approach, which emphasizes the social, emotional, and creative growth of children as well as their intellectual growth. There needs to be more of a focus on the factors, conditions, relationships, and environments necessary for healthy whole child development that results in real learning and creative, empathic, socially and emotionally skilled, and resilient children; a focus on marrying, not separating the head and heart, body, mind, and soul.

The data shows that academic test scores improve -- and negative behaviors decrease -- if healthy relationships and school climate are addressed as an inherent part of learning. Bullying is off the charts in U.S. schools and is destroying many children's lives. If kids feel cared for, if they feel valued and empowered, they are less likely to be subject to bullying and violence because healthy, nurturing environments naturally discourage these kinds of destructive behavior. What if we were able to not only create these kinds of environments but to sustain them for generations of kids? We think it would result in a much less violent and more creative society.

We're also investing in some networked efforts on the national level to share tools and innovations that promote "local living economies," sometimes known as "local first" efforts. A local living economy rests on the idea that economic power should, to the greatest extent possible, be situated locally, where it has the best chance to create and sustain vibrant, livable communities and healthy ecosystems. Supporting your local farmer and knowing where your food comes from is one way to do that.

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UN Millennium Development Goals Summit, Part (2): Every Woman, Every Child

September 29, 2010

(Michael Seltzer is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In his last post, he wrote about New York City's "neighborhood of conscience.")

MaternalhealthIndia The worst tragedies in history are often those that could have been avoided. Could untold numbers been saved from death at the hand of the Nazis if the Allies had bombed railroad lines used to transport them to concentration camps before and after D-Day? Could the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have been avoided through more behind-the-scenes diplomacy? Answers to such difficult questions are not easy to divine.

In contrast, the course of action needed to avert a twenty-first-century tragedy was readily apparent at last week's UN Millennium Development Goals Summit, where UN Secretary-General Ban-Ki moon unveiled Every Woman, Every Child, the UN's global strategy for improving women's and children's health. As one of the speakers at Wednesday's event, Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization, pointed out, we know which strategies and interventions work, thanks in part to decades of work undertaken (and -written) by governments, foundations, NGOs, UN agencies, and other multilateral institutions. The issue now is finding the collective will -- and resources -- to implement them.

At the event, Graça Machel, the former first lady of both Mozambique and South Africa, issued a three-part challenge: put women and children at the center of the political agenda; invest in fielding health professionals who can provide quality care; and make sure that women take responsibility for seeking needed healthcare services.

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9/11: Lest We Forget

September 11, 2010

(Michael Seltzer is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In his last post, he wrote about the Cordoba House controversy.)

9-11_memorial Nine years ago today, on a similarly gorgeous morning in the Northeast, almost three thousand individuals lost their lives in coordinated terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the crash of United Airlines Flight 43 near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. The horror of 9/11 will never be forgotten by the tens of thousands of people who lost loved ones or the hundreds of millions around the world who watched or listened to the terrible events of that day unfold on television, radio, or the Internet.

Nine years later, as we honor the innocent victims of the attacks and the hundreds of brave men and women who sacrificed their lives to help others, let us also remember that the attacks were designed to strike at the core of what most sets America apart from every other nation in history: Its (sometimes fraught) embrace of pluralism, freedom of expression, and the right to worship in one's own fashion.

Nothing illustrates the unique nature of the American experiment better than the fact that individuals from 77 different countries lost their lives on September 11, 2001. Here's the list of countries, courtesy of the U.S. Department of State's Office of International Information Programs:

Antigua & Barbuda Ghana Panama
Argentina Greece Peru
Australia Guatemala Philippines
Austria Guyana Poland
Bahamas Haiti Portugal
Bangladesh Honduras Romania
Barbados Hong Kong Russia
Belgium India Slovakia
Belarus Indonesia South Africa
Belize Iran South Korea
Bolivia Ireland Spain
Brazil Israel Sri Lanka
Cambodia Italy St. Kitts & Nevis
Canada Jamaica St. Lucia
Chile Japan Sweden
China Jordan Switzerland
Colombia Kenya Taiwan
Costa Rica Lebanon Thailand
Czech Republic Luxembourg Trinidad & Tobago
Dominica Malaysia Turkey
Dominican Republic Mexico Ukraine
Ecuador Netherlands United Kingdom
Egypt New Zealand Uruguay
El Salvador Nicaragua United States
France Norway Uzbekistan
Germany Pakistan Zimbabwe

On this, the ninth anniversary of 9/11, let us remember and honor all those who lost their lives, celebrate our differences, and stand together for peace, tolerance, and international understanding.

-- Michael Seltzer

NYC's 'Neighborhood of Conscience'

August 20, 2010

(Michael Seltzer is a regular contributor to PhilanTopic. In his last post, he wrote about African philanthropy.)

Cordoba_house Lower Manhattan is many things to many people: hub of global finance, a mosaic of ethnic enclaves, funky residential neighborhood with breath-taking views of New York harbor, and, of course, backdrop for the most devastating of the September 11 terrorist attacks. But thanks to a series of unrelated real estate transactions over the years, it has also emerged as the world's first "neighborhood of conscience." That term was coined in the 1990s after the Rockefeller Foundation invited a seemingly disparate group of nonprofit visionaries to its conference center in Bellagio, Italy -- a group that included the leadership of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City, Russia's Gulag Museum, and the District 6 Museum in South Africa, among others.

At that meeting, these nonprofits found common cause: a shared commitment to relating the past to the present, building "lasting cultures of human rights," and engaging "ordinary people in dialogue on social issues...through the establishment of sites [of conscience]."

In recognition of its importance, the sites of conscience movement has attracted the support of a number of foundations and philanthropies over the years, including the Compton Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Lambent Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the National Endowment for Democracy, the Oak Foundation, the Open Society Institute, and the Sigrid Rausing Trust.

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  • "America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves...."

    — Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865)

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