COF: Time of Change or Time of Crisis?

From May 2 – May 7, the Tactical Philanthropy Blog Team will be covering the Council on Foundations conference from Atlanta. The individual blog team members represent a range of opinions and have been given no editorial directions. The opinions expressed in these posts do not necessarily represent the opinions of Sean Stannard-Stockton.

By Trista Harris, Headwaters Foundation for Justice & New Voices in Philanthropy

Throughout the COF Conference there has been two competing themes. One theme sounds a little bit like this “it will take most foundations until 2017 to get to 2007 asset levels, assuming a healthy (and unlikely) 10% return.” The room groans and starts scribbling down numbers. People compare their investment strategies and then remind each other that foundations have a lot more to give than silly things like money. We convene and train and release reports and are a lot of fun to have around at a dinner party. “We can still be relevant”, we cry. We commit to making a 6% payout, forgetting to mention to ourselves and to grantees that 6% this year is still, much, much less in actual grant dollars than 5% last year. We return to our hotel rooms disheartened and call our CFO to figure out how much we can cut from our budget, so that perpetuity doesn’t actually mean, when the money runs out in 2015.

The second theme of the conference is change. There is excitement in the air that some amazing changes are happening politically, socially, and economically. We have a federal administration that is asking the philanthropic sector to offer solutions to our country’s most pressing needs. Stimulus dollars are coming to our communities and foundations across the country are coming to the table to make sure that the new dollars don’t exacerbate current inequalities, foundations’  traditional Lone Ranger approach to grantmaking has been replaced with a renewed spirit of collaboration and an honest look at the root causes of systemic issues, and economic challenges have made all of us look for new ways to streamline and improve our business model. Each of these changes will improve the way that our institutions interact with our grantees, our government, and our communities.

Now isn’t the time to cry over what we were, it is the time to rise up to the potential of what we can become.

Trista Harris is executive director of Headwaters Foundation for Justice and blogs at New Voices in Philanthropy.