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Former Republican congressman to lead Council on Foundations

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By Ret BoneyElected to the Wisconsin state legislature at age 23 and serving there and in Congress for 22 years, Steve Gunderson spent most of his adult life in public office.Now he brings that experience and knowledge with him as he takes over on Oct. 1 as president and CEO of the Council on Foundations, succeeding Dot Ridings, who is retiring after almost 10 years.“In everything I care about, philanthropy plays such an important role,” Gunderson says. “If I can help provide vision and leadership, how could I say, ‘No’?”

Gunderson, who spent eight years consulting on issues including workforce education and rural health care after leaving Congress, is taking control of the council at a critical time.

Not only is the Senate Finance Committee considering increased regulation of the sector, but some say the possible repeal of the estate tax could dampen charitable donations, and now grantmakers are grappling with how to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“We were impressed with his vision for the council, his understanding of the complex issues facing the field of philanthropy,” says Emmett Carson, president and CEO of the Minneapolis Foundation and board chair for the council.

“We felt that his strategic planning background and his legislative skills would be critical in helping the foundation field navigate the challenges facing us,” Carson says.

Gunderson’s high level of integrity impressed the search committee as well, says Maxwell King, president of the Heinz Endowments in Pittsburgh and vice-chair of the council’s board, who adds that Gunderson is “driven and motivated by his values, his faith and his strength of character.”

The council’s staff of about 100 provides education, training and support to its more than 2,000 members from across the country that collectively represent about two-thirds of the nation’s foundation assets, or about $283 billion at the end of last year.

Those groups represent a significant force for change and, last year alone, awarded grants totaling $21 billion.

                       Steve Gunderson

Job: President and CEO, Council on Foundations, Washington, D.C., effective Oct. 1

Education: B.A., political science, University of Wisconsin, Madison; graduate, Brown School of Broadcasting, Minneapolis

Born: 1951, Eau Claire, Wisc.

Family: Partner, Jonathan Stevens

Hobbies: Sports fan

Favorite teams: Wisconsin Badgers, Green Bay Packers

Recommended reading: “The Flight of the Creative Class,” by Richard Florida; “The World is Flat,” by Thomas Friedman; “They Marched into Sunlight,” by David Maraniss

Inspiration: Gerald Ford, “when he made the decision to relieve Nixon of any liability knowing it would cost him the presidency but would save the nation.”

Little-known fact: “Were I not gay, I probably would have been a minister.”

“Number one is enhancing the environment for philanthropy,” Gunderson says of his plans, “in the public sector through legislation and in the private sector through communication.”Gunderson says he supports the majority of recommendations provided the Senate Finance Committee by the Panel on the Nonprofit Sector, a group representing nonprofits and foundations, but worries about the process the committee may take.“I worry it won’t get the public review that is necessary,” he says.  “I hope we can keep what happens through a reconciliation process to a minimum.”And while Gunderson believes that philanthropy will grow regardless of the fate of the estate tax, he says politics in Washington, D.C., could be a hindrance.

“I start from the premise that the politics of the estate tax are such on the Hill that I don’t know how we get involved in a way that is productive,” he says, noting that Congress has temporarily pulled the issue, proof they knew it could not pass in the in the aftermath of Katrina.

But Gunderson is sure to bring to bear his experience and insight from almost a quarter-century of politics.

An avid sports fan who attended a two-room schoolhouse in rural Wisconsin, Gunderson first entered public life as a way to further his dream of becoming a sports broadcaster.

At age 23, he entered the Republican primary for the Wisconsin state legislature to sharpen his public speaking skills, he says, and after a surprise win, he went on to defeat the Democratic incumbent during the Watergate year of 1974.

After election to three terms in the state house, Gunderson won a seat in the U.S. Congress, where he spent the next 16 years.

His greatest accomplishment, he says, was changing the student loan and grant program so that non-traditional students are eligible for support, changes that passed with reforms to the Higher Education Act in the late 1980s.

He took his passion for workforce preparedness and development with him when he left Congress in 1997 for the Greystone Group, a strategy and communications consulting firm where he serves as managing director of the Washington office, has written a book and consulted on workforce and other issues.

He’s quick to clarify that he did no lobbying during his time at Greystone, but believes the experience helped prepare him for his new duties at the council.

“It was almost like this wonderful transition or bridge from the public sector, helping people design how they move their organizations realizing the government wasn’t going to be the sole provider of resources,” he says.

Remarkable for entering politics at a young age, Gunderson also found notoriety for being one of the first openly gay Republican congressmen, which he says has made him more sensitive to the need for diversity in America and in philanthropy.

“We are increasingly becoming a diverse society and philanthropy has to reflect that,” he says.  “Hopefully I will be much more sensitive to that and the cause.”

Gunderson’s first charge from the board is to develop an operating plan for carrying out the council’s new strategic framework.

That will include “enhancing the role of philanthropy in promoting the common good, reaching America and helping them understand what philanthropy does,” and addressing accountability, diversity and stewardship of philanthropy.

And the sector will certainly be formulating its continuing response to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

“Thus far, the response has been good and fully appropriate,” he says.  “I think much of our role is yet to come.  We will look much more at the strategic longer term.”

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