Change is in our DNA

(This is a guest post from Beth Reiter, VP for Communications & Marketing, The Greater Cincinnati Foundation, who covered the Council on Foundations Conference for Tactical Philanthropy)

By Beth Reiter

Now that I’m back and immersed in the everyday, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the session “Community Foundations: Contemporary and Perpetual.” This panel examined the leadership of three large community foundations and some of the tension that many CFs feel between taking visible and/or controversial positions in their communities and the need to maintain trust and attract donors.

Ronn Richard is the CEO of The Cleveland Foundation, the original community foundation. With a fascinating background (that includes a stint in the CIA, probably a pretty small club for foundation CEOs), he is uniquely suited to do what TCF did – take on economic development on a global scale for the region. TCF’s leadership assembled the Fund for Our Economic Future with about 100 other funding partners. Richard spoke of making the Northeast Ohio region “the capital of…” several things, including advanced energy.

The effort to lead in advanced energy included private sponsorship to get a top energy expert on staff, legislative work to pass a law that was needed to make the climate more appealing for alternative energy, and encouraging Case Western Reserve University to revitalize engineering studies by creating an Institute for Alternative Energy. TCF also hired a Director of International Relations to promote Cleveland around the world that has already had a number of successes. These are pretty unusual efforts for many CFs.

One of Richard’s key themes was that public policy advocacy is critical for CFs who want to achieve major change. Welfare rules, tax law, foreign policy (“guns vs. butter”) all impact the work we are trying to do and we have to be ready to advocate for changes.

Another theme, echoed by Chicago Community Trust CEO Terry Mazany was the need to think far beyond our regions. “Global competition defines our world,” he said, going on to describe the Trust’s efforts to move from poverty to prosperity through education.

In the case of both these older, established foundations, there is a larger proportion of discretionary dollars available than for most CFs. But these CEOs believe we need to make more of a case for endowment dollars, even with living donors, who many of us have psyched ourselves into believing will only fund to their own interests through DAFs. Bob King, CEO of the Arizona Foundation, which also worked on educational reform, doesn’t have the same discretionary luxury but believes the visibility his foundation’s efforts enjoyed will help attract donors. “But you can’t just ask donors to trust us. You have to have a concrete ‘product’ to sell, such as housing,” he said. Arizona now offers foundation-directed funds in certain strategic areas.

So, to the original session title, the first question was about balancing current needs with enduring commitments. For Cleveland, Richard says the key was adding these new areas, but not taking away from existing funding areas. King says you have to continue making the smaller grants, and the public policy work is an “add on.” Another question related to board changes necessary to work at this level. The answer was that you do have to be just as strategic with your board, identifying the type of people and the skillsets that you need – and that they need to have a high tolerance for risk.

For my money, it was thought-provoking to hear about this flexibility to change and respond to current needs – especially from some of the oldest community foundations out there. According to Richard, “Change is built into the DNA of the community foundation field.”

I was also happy to hear moderator Will Ginsberg (Community Foundation of Greater New Haven) give props to fellow blogger Lucy Bernholz and “On the Brink of New Promise” as having been influential for community foundation thinking.

[With all due respect to the leadership and expertise of the gentlemen involved, four white men on the panel was pretty noticeable, right after a much-touted plenary breakfast on diversity in the field.]