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Philanthropy's Vision: A Leadership Summit

May 05, 2008

So here I am at the Council on Foundations' 2008 annual conference. I've been a regular attendee at this event for a decade now, and, mirroring the growth of philanthropy in the U.S. and around the world, it seems to get bigger from one year to the next.

This year's event is going to be tough to surpass, though. The council, at the behest of its relatively new president Steve Gunderson, decided to combine a year's worth of annual convenings (for family foundations, community foundations, etc.) into one ginormous confab. (Click here to read an interview I did with Steve in October 2006 in which he discusses many of the themes of this year's conference.) Everything about the event, from the number of attendees (3,000+) to the sprawling facility in which it is being held (the Gaylord National Resort & Conference Center, in Maryland, across the Potomac from Alexandria), is...outsized. It's like a conference on steroids -- without the harmful side effects.

I arrived yesterday afternoon and have already connected with a number of old friends as well as some brand-new ones. In the latter category I count Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, and Sean Stannard-Stockton, the wunderkind responsible for the Tactical Philanthropy blog. I'll be speaking with both of them for PhilanTopic over the next day or two, and in between sessions I hope to corral one or two other people with interesting perspectives to share on the changing landscape of philanthropy.

Ah,yes, sessions. They come fast and furious at an event like this, and this year (more than ever, it seems) they address an eye-opening range of topics, from faith and feminism, to climate change, to the genocide in Darfur, to the droput crisis in our public high schools, to leadership and operational challenges, and on and on. It's enough to bring a blogger to his knees.

Smart young guy that he is, Sean Stannard-Stockton has enlisted a diverse group of philanthropoids to help him live blog the conference. You can follow their coverage here. While you're at it, be sure to check out this post by Peter Manzo, director of strategic initiatives at the Advancement Project in Los Angeles and senior research fellow at the UCLA Center for Civil Society, criticizing the video essay by NewsHour contributor Roger Rosenblatt presented at last night's opening plenary. Writes Manzo:

The video presented a paternalistic image of philanthropy as the heroic savior of the wretched, and made outlandish claims that philanthropy, as the "Fifth Estate," accomplishes more than the combination of the other four (originally, religion, government (nobles), the common citizenry and the media). At one point the video claims that philanthropy has accomplished more good than any government ever has, and at another, fantasizes about a world without governments, just institutions that see the world as problems to be solved, with "no one to tell them what they can and cannot do." (I guess we won’t need voting or collective political expression then; states will have "withered away," ironically from a different direction, and the wise institution leaders will figure out the best intersection between what we think we want and what we really need.) Really, if you weren’t there to see it, imagine a lampoon of philanthropy done by The Onion, only this was dead serious.

The shame of it is that philanthropy's true role and impact, unvarnished, are critical and impressive in their own right, and many of the Council's members do achieve huge, vital, even heroic goals, and help us all set our sights on even more. They deserved a much more faithful, balanced presentation. Moreover, the depiction of heroic philanthropy, acting alone, undercut the theme of partnership and collaboration emphasized by the Council and Gunderson in his speech....

Good stuff. Stay tuned -- more to come...

-- Mitch Nauffts

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