COF: Rock Star Philanthropy

By Sean Stannard-Stockton

The opening plenary of the Council on Foundations conference was fine. It was interesting. There was a nice musical piece by a local group to kick things off.

But it wasn’t a rock concert.

The Council on Foundations conference should be philanthropy’s Woodstock. It should be our Octoberfest. It should be our MacWorld. It should be the type of event where people who are passionate about philanthropy and foundations come together to celebrate, learn, share and laugh. It should be fun.

Have you ever seen Steve Jobs give a presentation to hard core Apple fans? Watch how the audience goes wild when Jobs begins listing the features of the new iPhone in this video:


He’s talking about a phone for Goodness’ sakes! But he has an audience of passionate Apple fans and he plays to their passion.

Why can’t the philanthropy sector learn to be passionate? This conference crowd is one that would go wild if foundation leaders climbed onto the stage to announce new initiatives that most people would think of as technical items.

This kind of “showmanship” isn’t just a game. Steve Jobs has used it to transform the way Americans interact with technology. The Blackberry has been around forever, but it was Steve Jobs iPhone showmanship that began to put a mobile computing device in the hands of everyday people.

The philanthropy sector loves to complain about the lack of media coverage of our good work. But it is our very inability to effectively spread ideas that leads to us being ignored.

It is no coincidence that when I tweeted during the opening plenary: “This conference should be like Apple conferences with the audience excited to see our version of Steve Jobs take the stage. Where are our rock stars?” The first response came from New York Times report Stephanie Strom, probably the country’s most well know mainstream reporter covering nonprofits and philanthropy.

Stephanie wrote: “Very good question. Bill Gates? Jeff Skoll? Steve Case? Luis Ubinas? Judith Rodin?”

I think philanthropy is scared of rock stars. Another friend of mine replied via Twitter, “Rock stars in philanthropy would just make the power dynamics worse". I agree that charismatic leaders can be dangerous. But they are also the only leaders who ever make a difference.

I don’t want a pop star philanthropy that encourages celebrity status, I want a passion filled philanthropy that is energizing, dynamic and larger than life.

We are trying to change the world after all.


  1. Yep, full on agree. Thanks for expressing it.

  2. Kevin Hodgkins says:

    I must respectfully disagree with your statement that “charismatic leaders can be dangerous. But they are also the only leaders who ever make a difference.”

    These are just the only people who make a difference that you hear about. For each of these are thousands of others that make real differences every day.

    Respectfully –

  3. Fair enough Kevin. People who are not charismatic leaders do a TON of good work. I guess I should modify my statement to say that charismatic leaders are wonderful motivating forces for good. There’s not nearly enough of them in philanthropy.

  4. Noah Flower says:

    Sean, I was going through your old posts and this one jumped out at me. Do you know about Malaria No More? I just wrote up a quick case study of their strategy and it strikes me as an excellent example of how celebrity star power can be used to rouse public passion around an issue. It’s still in the public, not in the world of philanthropy, but perhaps some of that spirit will prove infectious.

  5. Noah,
    I’d be interested in seeing the case study.