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The View from Maryland -- Philanthropy's Leadership Summit, Day One

May 06, 2008

(Michael Seltzer, a regular contributor to PhilanTopic, checks in from the Council on Philanthropy's annual conference.)

Philanthropy's rapid growth in the United States and around the globe is quite apparent this week in Maryland, where more than 3,500 grantmakers and nonprofit leaders from 40 countries have gathered for the largest convocation of philanthropists in history. The "Summit" is a call to action to the world's philanthropic community to share "best practices in leadership, partnership and impact that enable [it] to most effectively serve the common good."

Even for a veteran CoF conference-goer like myself -- I've been attending these gatherings since 1975 -- the experience is both heady and a little unreal.

Wherever I turn, I seem to bump into a smiling representative of a well-known or -respected foundation. The program is similarly impressive (and intimidating). The challenges and opportunities discussed at plenaries, concurrent sessions, site visits, and "advanced practice institutes" run the gamut from economic inequality and human rights, to climate change and women’s empowerment. Session topics appearing for the first time this year include faith and feminism, sports philanthropy, and green and civic foundation spaces, which I had in hand in designing.

The MO of those in attendance is not to rehash problems. Rather, the focus is on strategies and practices that can leverage "impact." Discussions of theories of change, either implicit or explicit, abound. What is most evident is the palpable sense that the people here are passionate about creating a better world.

Detecting subtler patterns among the scores of sessions and hundreds of speakers is far from simple. But a few emerge: collaboration as a way to leverage resources and enhance impact; the role of diversity in philanthropic effectiveness and how to achieve it; and a much-needed reassertion of philanthropy’s historic role as an advocate in the public policy arena.

Also in the spotlight are new tools from organizations like Grantcraft and the Center for Effective Philanthropy designed to help level the uneven playing field between funders and recipients. CEP, which was established in 2001, has completed "grantee perception reports" for more than seventy-five foundations, while many of Grantcraft's growing collection of publications illustrate how grantees and funders increasingly are hamstrung by their traditional roles and what they can do to work smarter and recapture the spirit of partnership in the work they do together.

The challenge for attendees after the last session ends Wednesday afternoon will be to figure out how to translate all the formal and informal conversations they will have had into action that earns philanthropy the moniker the late Paul Ylvisacker, one of philanthropy's most distinguished practitioners, bestowed on the field decades ago -- "society’s passing lane." I'll be rooting for them.

-- Michael Seltzer

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