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Philanthropy Journal of North Carolina – Foundations can move out front

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By Todd Cohen

Philanthropy is getting a rare chance to wake up and look ahead.

Thanks to the budget crisis that is triggering deep cuts in government spending on social programs, organized philanthropy is getting a much-needed kick out of its slumber and into the future.

While its indignity may smart, grantmakers would be smarter still to use that unexpected blow to transform the role they play.

Consider what’s happening in North Carolina, a state that enjoys a strong tradition of philanthropy and a strong network of nonprofit and philanthropic organizations.

Compared to its impact on many other states, the recession has dealt North Carolina an unusually painful body blow because of its heavy concentration of manufacturing jobs in industries such as textiles and technology, and because of its increasingly heavy reliance on tax revenue from wealthy individuals for capital gains and non-wage income such as bonuses.

Philanthropic dollars alone cannot begin to fill the hole in social services that government budget cuts are digging.

But if its leaders think about its assets as more than simply money, and see the challenges we face are far deeper than the immediate budget crisis, philanthropy can help the state climb out of that hole and build a solid foundation for the state to thrive in the new economy.

Recognizing the importance of reshaping the way they work, a handful of foundations –– including some that are revamping their own organizations and focus — have formed the North Carolina Network of Grantmakers.

The idea is to create a marketplace funders can use to share what they know, pool dollars and invest in promising ideas for tackling our toughest problems at their roots.

The network already has formed an email list-serve that members can use to communicate with one another. And the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation and Warner Foundation, moving forces in the creation of the network itself, also are spearheading an effort to raise funds to match challenges by national foundations in two initiatives – one to boost Latino philanthropy, the other to expand the role of lawyers as partners in social-justice causes.

At its inaugural meeting June 5 that attracted 80 grantmakers, the network also asked members to rank possible priorities for the network ranging from sharing information and building relationships to attracting national funding, forming grantmaking partnerships and helping to shape public policy.

That’s a great start, but organized philanthropy can and should do much more.

Big priorities should be to conduct a statewide civic debate about the future of our state and the role that government should play, to find ways to tap the time, money and know-how in the state that can be used to address our critical problems, and to find ways to get individuals and groups in philanthropy, government and business to work together.

The grantmakers network is long overdue and much needed. But to truly make a difference in our state, the network needs to be a vehicle not only to simply aggregate the resources of organized philanthropy, but also to help organized philanthropy change the way it does business.

Individual grantmakers need to take a hard look at how they operate and the impact they have.

And as they begin to work together in their new network, grantmakers need to find ways to use their money and know-how to unleash the untapped philanthropic resources that can be put to productive and innovative use to make our state a better place to live and work.

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