Partner or Savior?

(This is a guest post from Peter Manzo, board member of National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, who is covering the Council on Foundations Conference for Tactical Philanthropy)

By Peter Manzo

It can’t be easy running an organization as large and diverse as the Council on Foundations and, certainly, planning a huge event like the Philanthropy Summit must be a Herculean task.

The focus of the opening sessions were remarks by Steve Gunderson, CEO of the Council, and a video about philanthropy. They both were abysmal. Gunderson gave an unremarkable speech filled with vagaries, platitudes and so many buzzwords that during one heavy stretch where he seemed to touch on a half-dozen in a row, I had to stifle the urge to yell “Bingo!” The low mark, though, was the short film on the global role of philanthropy by Roger Rosenblatt. The video presented a paternalistic image of philanthropy as the heroic savior of the wretched, and made outlandish claims that philanthropy, as the “Fifth Estate,” accomplishes more than the combination of the other four (originally, religion, government (nobles), the common citizenry and the media). At one point the video claims that philanthropy has accomplished more good than any government ever has, and at another, fantasizes about a world without governments, just institutions that see the world as problems to be solved, with “no one to tell them what they can and cannot do.” (I guess we won’t need voting or collective political expression then; states will have “withered away,” ironically from a different direction, and the wise institution leaders will figure out the best intersection between what we think we want and what we really need.) Really, if you weren’t there to see it, imagine a lampoon of philanthropy done by The Onion, only this was dead serious.

The shame of it is that philanthropy’s true role and impact, unvarnished, are critical and impressive in their own right, and many of the Council’s members do achieve huge, vital, even heroic goals, and help us all set our sights on even more. They deserved a much more faithful, balanced presentation. Moreover, the depiction of heroic philanthropy, acting alone, undercut the theme of partnership and collaboration emphasized by the Council and Gunderson in his speech.

The speakers on international philanthropy were much better, but they had to follow a very tough act. After sitting through the condescending tone of the video, and thinking about the fact that the impact of philanthropy is far outweighed in most parts of the world by the effects of U.S. economic and foreign policy, for good or ill (and the fact that, as a friend who formerly worked in Asia for a U.S. foundation told me, they felt foreign grantmakers and organizations had not been adequately consulted and involved in developing the Summit), I had to marvel at the self-restraint of Michael Balaoing, one of the co-chairs of the Summit planning committee (lots of earnest energy and good humor), the remarks by philanthropic leaders from around the world (Gerard Salole, CEO of the European Foundation Centre and Chair of TrustAfrica; Dr. Akwasi Aidoo, Executive Director of TrustAfrica; Atallah Kuttab, Director General, Welfare Association; Fernando Rossetti, Secretary General, Grou pof Institutes, Foundations and Enterprises (GIFE); Rory Tolentino, Asia Pacific Philanthropy Consortium), and Maxwell King, President of The Heinz Endowments.

**These opinions are solely my own.