When Foundations Collaborate to Solve the World’s Problems

April 24, 2017 Jamie Serino

This article was originally published on npENGAGE.

This week, Council on Foundations’ (CoF) annual conference is underway in Dallas, with an agenda focused on a timely theme: leading together. As foundation leaders from across the country gather to share ideas and talk about the future, I’ve been thinking about the concept of leadership. There are many ways to define this big-picture term. One of the ways I think about leadership comes from a phrase that my colleague Rachel Hutchisson says which states: “good is for everyone.” I believe leadership is for everyone, too. Leadership is a mindset. In philanthropy, one way you see leadership is in someone’s response to a problem or issue – instead of saying, “Who will fix this?” a leader says, “I can fix this, we can fix this together.”

With this focus on leadership in mind, I recently had the opportunity to speak with Vikki Spruill, the Council on Foundations’ president and CEO, about the meaning behind the “leading together” conference theme. To say that Vikki is passionate about foundations and their ability to drive social change would be an understatement. She has a way of seeing the philanthropic space as a tapestry of strengths, skills, and resources.

Vikki believes foundations can “lead together” by embracing what they can bring to the table. Vikki states:

Leading together means in our own sector, we should lead as different kinds of organizations… For instance, corporate foundations can contribute volunteers or marketing expertise; community foundations often serve as anchor institutions helping government and businesses come together in local communities; private foundations tend to look at longer-term systemic roots of problems. When you put that tapestry together, you have a powerful way to solve problems and advance social change.

Of course, this “powerful way to solve problems” has its power when it’s put into action. CoF’s work with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is a great example of collaboration in action. The global initiative is to, as Vikki puts it, “leave no one behind by 2030.” COF has been hosting a series of events to convene communities in cities around the country to have conversations about how to apply this global framework to local challenges. This convening brings together foundation leaders, civil society leaders, government officials, university representatives, and more. Vikki states:

People are used to working in their own community or their specific project. It’s consistent with this leading together vision as well. It’s ‘How does my piece fit into advancing change for the whole world?’ We all want to see that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and the SDGs help provide that pathway.

In the spirit of leading together, the SDGs also speak to Vikki’s top piece of advice for all foundations. As foundations convene and collaborate to effect change, they have a great opportunity to build a collective story of progress and impact. On this point, Vikki says,

The best advice I could offer is to remind foundations to talk about the incredible work they do. So often, foundations are viewed as a checkbook and not as the strategic driver of change they really are. Foundations can bring philanthropy to life the more they talk about the work they’re doing, the programs they’re funding, how they’re approaching the issues they’re working on, and specific examples of what they’re programs and projects have made possible.

If you speak with Vikki, you can’t help but feel inspired about the future of philanthropy. It’s clear that foundations have an opportunity to lead together as conveners and a voice for the vital nature of philanthropy’s work in our world, bridging divides to achieve lasting change.

Vikki summed up our conversation when she said:

I think we can all appreciate that the problems facing our planet are greater than any one of us can take on single-handedly. That goes for philanthropy, too. Corporate foundations, community foundations, private foundations – they are all different, yet they have this in common: these organizations are leaders in solving problems and catalyzing change. If we want to effect real impact in the world, it’s critical for different types of foundations to come together to leverage their unique resources and expertise as a powerful way to advance social change.

During CoF’s annual conference, I look forward to working with foundation leaders across the philanthropic sector, and I’ll be keeping Vikki’s insights and inspiration in mind. If you’re interested in hearing more – and there’s a lot more – you can listen to my full podcast episode with Vikki on the Champions for Social Good podcast. Are you in Dallas for the conference? Y’all be sure to say hello at the event.


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