Opening Plenery

(This is a guest post from Steve Butz,
President & Founder of Social Solutions, who is covering the Council on Foundations Conference for Tactical Philanthropy)

By Steve Butz

As I head into the next session, I have a few minutes to reflect on the Opening Plenary this morning given by Carolyn Lukensmeyer, the President and Founder of AmericaSpeaks, Luz Vega-Marquis, President and CEO of Marguerite Casey Foundation and Sterling Speirn, President and CEO of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

At one point, one audience member asked “What should the next President know about this sector?”

The question sparked a great conversation at my table, with various points of view represented.

Personally, I’d like to see the next President challenge this sector as never before. I see tremendous potential for overwhelming impacts from more strategic, thoughtful donations into promising practices, and I believe the next President should demand, (perhaps through a re-evaluation of the tax code?) more non-fiscal accountability from the sector. Perhaps with a strong nudge from the Federal Government, foundations can begin to hold themselves collectively more accountable to the results they that they set out to achieve – and for which they have received funding.

Just my initial thoughts as I head into “The Myths and Realities of Socially Responsible Investing.”

One other quick thought – this conference site is phenomenal! This is my first trip to the National Harbor, and you have to see the beauty of this place to appreciate it. I wonder if you can get from here to the Nationals game via water taxi?


  1. young staffer says:

    I understand your sentiment, Steve, but I think your adopting a lot of the professional language of the sector which let’s us glide over the political challenges of what you’re proposing the IRS should do.

    Let me explain. We talk about “impacts,” “strategic donations,” and “promising practices” as if those are objective, scientific things. They’re not. People disagree about what the impact should be, what the strategy is, and what’s promising.

    Let me start with the obvious example: How would the IRS determine the effectivess and impact of a Planned Parenthood and an absistence-only sex education organization working in the same community? What about think tanks on opposite ends of the political spectrum? These kinds of organizations can’t all “succeed” in achieving their missions. They spend their days actively fighting each other.

    Then you get to the next most obvious: organizations for whom their holding themselves accountable to their mission is very subjective. If your goal is provide quality art to the community, you can definitely debate a group’s success at that. Think about the NEA and its work and tell me that determining quality isn’t controversial and politically-heated. And politically-heated doesn’t usually lend itself well to bureaucratic standardization.

    And let’s think for a second about the biggest parts of the U.S.’s nonprofit sector: health and education. Some of the biggest battles in the political world today are over whether health and education should be provided by the government or by the private sector. That’s because people don’t agree about who is best suited to provide them and how one defines “best.” What standards of non-fiscal accoutnability would the IRS use to measure hopsitals and universities and private schools? Are there any that aren’t politically contentious?

    A look at your brief intro tells me that these are mostly not the parts of the sector you work in. But before we go proposing that federal government impose non-fiscal accountability, we have to think about what the full sector is accountable for. And, in my opinion, the sector is far too diverse for us to think a standard, bucreaucratic form of “non-fiscal accountability” is possible for all 501(c)(3) organizations or even all private foundations, which support the full range of these organizations.

    Unless you’re also proposing that we start re-writing the tax code toseparate out social service focused nonprofits from arts from advocacy from universities from… and then we can maybe talk.

  2. Young Staffer, I’ve reposted your comment as a blog post.