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Change needed in philanthropy

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By Steve Gunderson

The Council on Foundations is changing.

A few may believe we are changing too slowly. A few may believe we are changing too quickly.

But no one in or near our offices doubts we are changing.

We are pursuing a sweeping change in an area that is both critical and symbolic — diversity.

For decades American philanthropy has been diverse in philosophies, in programs and in personalities.

But we have been an overwhelmingly white, Anglo-Saxon enterprise.

Family foundations, by their nature, display their diversity in the form of generations with very different views of the world – and of philanthropy.

I am not asking you to change the makeup of your board.

But I join you in recognizing the diversity of the world we serve, through your service as well.

The Council on Foundations is without excuse.

We must demonstrate that philanthropy sees a diverse America, rich in races and religions; and that we understand the global gifts of various nationalities and languages.

We will soon have, at the highest level of the council’s staff, a director of diversity programs.

We will prove that diversity is more than a program, more even than an outcome: It is a value, deeply instilled in us and our work.

That value will drive us to sweeping changes.

Similarly, we are changing – we have changed – in the arena of government relations.

We have a history of responding to challenges as they rose from regulators and legislators.

We are now moving from defense to offense, from merely returning serves to serving up ideas ourselves.

We are intent on developing and advancing a philanthropic partnership legislative agenda that is proactive in every sense, built on a non-partisan platform, showing the results of philanthropy’s work.

I’m also encouraging the council to take some risks with communication.

If we fear failure, we will never achieve dramatic and fundamental change.

Coming from outside philanthropy, I see the high value we place on consensus, harmonizing discordant themes until we have one, agreed-upon statement.

The risk is that, in massaging every message until we have absolute consensus, the final product is bland and boring.

Language is risky. But at critical moments, I am willing to sacrifice consensus to achieve clarity, impact and leadership – in the hallways of both the council and the Congress.


Steve Gunderson is president and CEO of the Council on Foundations in Washington, D.C. This article is adapted from his speech to the 2007 Family Foundation Conference held in February in Baltimore.

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