Everything Old is New Again

(This is a guest post from Chris Cardona, of the NYC Venture Philanthropy Fund, who is covering the Council on Foundations Conference for Tactical Philanthropy)

By Chris Cardona

After yesterday’s broad conversations and themes, day 2 of the CoF summit was about getting into the nitty-gritty. I went to the morning concurrent session on social entrepreneurship, so ably covered by my blog-team colleague Taylor Ansley. I would only add from the perspective of my giving circle, which focuses on social entrepreneurship, that it’s thrilling to see such interest in the topic, and also such healthy skepticism about its applicability. Also, Bill Drayton of Ashoka has an amazing presence; calm, professorial in the best way, utterly devoid of hype, and yet very clear about what needs to change in the world. What an inspiring model.

The idea that most stood out for me from the session was that philanthropy can be “patient capital” to help socially beneficial ideas that at first can’t be delivered at costs that make them viable as for-profit investments. Patient capital can help these efforts develop proof of concept, so they can get to the point where they can ultimately become attractive to for-profit investors, therefore opening them up to vast reservoirs of private funding. This is of course the oldest saw about philanthropy’s role in society, that it can incubate innovative ideas that others won’t support, etc., etc. This dynamic – in which business-speak is used to clothe an old insight – reminds me of graduate school (over the past year I’ve been completing my dissertation in political science). For many years, students of comparative politics have developed thoughtful analyses of the conditions that underlie transitions to democracy (to take just one topic). Recently, economics has colonized political science, using very fancy technical mathematics to rebuild comparative politics from the ground up, with little regard or respect for what’s been done before. Along the way, old insights about transitions to democracy (to take just one topic) have been arrived at after tortuous mathematical contortions and presented as new. During the terrific lunch plenary, Mary Robinson referred to a global group of “Elders” organized by Nelson Mandela, of which she is a part. Oh, to have the insights of philanthropic elders save us fans of social entrepreneurship from reinventing the wheel as economists have done in political science….

The lunch plenary really was very good. I think the Council did a great job this year of mixing broadly accessible plenaries and technically-focused breakout sessions. Thank you, Kumi Naidoo of CIVICUS, for my favorite new distinction: philanthropy vs. “fool-anthropy.” I was laughing too hard to catch his particular definition of the latter term. Anyone recall it?

In the afternoon, Julie Rogers at the emerging leaders salon told a great story about how she came to be a young foundation CEO (connecting with a savvy and empowering board chair whose skills and temperament she complemented) and grew into what has become a long and successful tenure (by hiring talented people and creating a family-friendly environment). I find myself drawn lately to a model of soft-spoken, unassuming, but sharply insightful leadership exemplified by Rogers, Drayton, and yesterday’s salon speaker Susan Berresford. Thanks to EPIP for making two of those three accessible through the emerging leaders salon.

I was disappointed at the turnout for what looked to be a very informative session in the afternoon on giving circles and foundations. I arrived late myself, but it’s clear that there was a lot of good thinking going on, and one particularly interesting model that involved a traveling giving circle. I guess it’s not clear yet to many foundation leaders the value of partnerships with giving circles. Well, my takeaway for my NYC Venture Philanthropy Fund colleagues will be, “let’s see if we can’t do something about that.”

My dissertation calls, so I’m headed back to New York on Tuesday morning. Thanks to Sean for this opportunity and to my fellow bloggers for their insights.