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What Do Foundations Talk About at Conferences?

November 18, 2014

NOLA

Mayor of New Orleans Mitch Landrieu Talks About Building Community at the Southeast Council of Foundations Annual Conference

Our community is rich with opportunities for nonprofit leaders to connect with each other and learn from colleagues as well as local and national experts. Foundations convene many of these gatherings as a way to build the strength of the sector.

We’re all familiar with the big, recycled topics of conversation—fundraising, finding committed board members, managing program demand with limited resources, and balancing the needs and expectations of funders and donors.

But when foundations have the opportunity to meet with colleagues at fellow grant making organizations, what do we talk about?

Here’s a glimpse from our participation in the Southeast Council of Foundations annual conference in New Orleans last week. The gathering draws people from private, family, community and corporate foundations all over the southeastern United States to discuss the issues impacting our region.

It’s no surprise that we spend lots of time reflecting on the complexity of issues in our region and the deeply rooted economic and educational disparities in the South, all of which require a systemic approach involving other foundation, government and nonprofit partners.

Similar to the nonprofit collaborations we’re always encouraging you to explore, we experience how rewarding but tricky partnering with each other can be when we approach solutions with different expectations.

Though social issues are similar across our region and we strive to learn from each other, we also recognize that each community is different and requires different approaches, ideally shaped by the people who are closest to the issues we are seeking to address—meaning non-foundation human assets living in these communities. Yes, foundations do recognize this!

In Richmond, Virginia, community health workers raised in the public housing projects are now transforming health in their own communities. Citizens in Halifax County, North Carolina have co-designed community playground projects and other resources to improve the quality of life.  Work in both areas is made possible through foundations and their successful partnerships. (Read more about the work of the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable trust here.)

A highlight for me was hearing from Susan Desmond-Hellmann, president and CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, who discussed the organization’s annual strategic planning processes and their approaches to education work in the United States, deeply driven by building teacher excellence.

The programmatic aspects of the Gates Foundation’s work was fascinating. But perhaps what I enjoyed most was hearing Susan describe the kindness and sincerity with which Bill and Melinda approach their work and foundation philosophy–that all lives have equal value.

At the end of the day, those of us who are working most closely to improve the human condition should remember to maintain compassion for each other as we interact with foundation and nonprofit colleagues. Even the best of us can get lost in outcomes, reporting, impact and other mechanical aspects we commonly use as the currency of our work.

Wes Moore, Rhodes Scholar, decorated combat veteran, White House Fellow and author of The Other Wes Moore, (who also visit Sarasota for The Patterson Foundation’s Veterans Legacy Summit this weekend) left us with three very compelling thoughts that even the most academic of participants could be heard discussing in the hotel corridors:

  • Potential may be universal, but opportunities are not.
  • Who do you choose to advocate for when it isn’t easy? Be the champion for those who need you.
  • When it’s time for you to leave this planet, make sure it matters that you were ever even here.

Yes, we should always be the best human beings possible while serving in our privileged positions.

With every passing conference, we learn that there are no easy answers. There are seemingly infinite ways we could do better in our work, and just as many shining examples of incredible feats accomplished through philanthropy and our nonprofit partners.

Special thanks to the staff, board and volunteers of the Southeastern Council of Foundations for making this opportunity for learning and recharging possible. Our president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Sarasota County Roxie Jerde is a proud trustee of SECF, representing our region.

And there you have it, nonprofit friends. We’re a lot like you.

-Susie Bowie
Community Foundation of Sarasota County

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