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A Conversation with Ed Skloot (and Friends)

November 07, 2007

Though I don't share his politics, I'm a fan of Bill Schambra's. Schambra, the director of the Bradley Center for Philanthropy and Civic Renewal at the D.C.-based Hudson Institute, is a smart and generally fearless provocateur who over the last few years has made a name for himself challenging -- in op-ed pieces and through a series of live, lunchtime panel discussions at Hudson -- many of the assumptions that inform the work of foundations in the U.S.

A week or so ago, Schambra invited Ed Skloot, the recently retired head of the New York City-based Surdna Foundation (and a provocateur in his own right), to take the Bradley Center stage and share his thoughts about the profession and practice of philanthropy. Skloot was joined on stage by three other "philanthropoids" -- Joanne Scanlan, a longtime officer at the Council on Foundations and now a principal at the eScanlan Company; Albert Ruesga, vice president, programs and communications at the D.C.-based Eugene and Agnes E. Meyer Foundation and chief blogger at the always entertaining White Courtesy Telephone; and Douglas Besharov, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy and the Joseph J. and Violet Jacobs Scholar in Social Welfare Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

The conversation, which took as its starting point Skloot's Waldemar Nielsen lecture from 2001, "Slot Machines, Boat Building, and the Future of Philanthropy," was frank in its appraisal of the strengths -- and weaknesses -- of contemporary American philanthropy, and it seemed to end with the participants agreeing that foundations, while not as effective as they might be, generally were a positive force in American society.

That glosses over many of the more interesting and/or provocative comments made during  the event, as when Skloot suggested that "foundations don't have much incentive to change what they do, and [that because] they tend to live in perpetuity, they can keep their old ways in perpetuity, too." Or when Scanlan argued that "Historically...foundations have worked best with organizations that are most like them, organizations that are staffed by middle-class and upper-middle-class people who are articulate, well educated, and comfortable in formal organizations. Partnering across lines -- [whether] economic, race, class, gender, sexual identity, disability, or organizational -- those are going to continue to be challenges." Or when Ruesga noted that "In the foundation field...we tend to affirm and recreate the world rather than challenge and remake it. Foundations reproduce external hierarchies internally." Or when Besharov stated that "the process of program development, policy development, has to start with the idea that it will fail...over and over and over again. And the role of foundations has to be to be prepared to fail and to learn from failure."

But don't take my word for it. You can read or download the complete edited transcript (2.9 mb, 30 pages, PDF) here.

And if you have any thoughts about whether foundations (specifically) and philanthropy (in general) are effective agents of social change and/or are positioned to serve as such in a rapidly changing world, we'd love to hear them.

-- Mitch Nauffts

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