Time to reboot the Council on Foundations

Earlier this month Steve Gunderson announced his intention to resign his position as President and CEO of the Council on Foundations, effective September 1. The pending leadership offers the Council an opportunity to again recast its focus and mission (again). Hopefully, the new change will position the organization to take risk and exhibit leadership in the philanthropic sector.

I’ve been thinking about the role of the Council in philanthropy for a while and waited for the past few weeks to see how the announcement would resonate. Outside of a Chronicle of Philanthropy article and a great opinion piece by Pablo Eisenberg (which I seem to be channeling a bit) both published this week, the philanthropic community has been virtually silent on this looming change.

Gunderson came aboard in a bold move by the Council to reorient its mission and focus. He pushed for a stronger legislative, policy, and visibility approach. And yet his tenure has been marked by more missed opportunities that have lessened the Council’s relevancy.

The policy agenda seemed to consume more of the organization’s focus and energy then necessary. Gunderson had a mandate to stabilize the staff; yet his tenure was plagued by a constant drone of staff transitions and departures at various levels within the organization. Its communication efforts became a victim of economics – the communication department was almost entirely dismantled, its flagship publication was cancelled, and smaller efforts abandoned (e.g., the Wikipedia entry for the Council was last updated in 2006). As such, what could have been a tenure marked by a voice calling for change and espousing new visions within philanthropy never materialized.

Tony Wang’s recent post on Tactical Philanthropy (especially the data source on guest posts) highlights where the discussion has moved. Key philanthropic voices are being heard outside of the Council’s domain and much of the discussions pushing philanthropy ahead are being led by those employed by non-grantmaking institutions. The critical voices of those working within philanthropic institutions have largely disappeared and much of the thought leadership appears to come from outside foundations.

Gunderson’s departure gives the Council and the philanthropic community an opportunity to reboot the organization’s mandate. The Council should continue its legislative agenda but with much great impact. It needs to embrace leadership positions that will, by their nature, alienate philanthropies. By catering to the middle and avoiding taking positions on critical issues– whether on critical legislation, transparency issues or spend-down rates – the Council has abdicated much of its leadership position. It needs to serve as the hub for educating philanthropic organizations on new approaches and advocating for greater adoption of emerging issues such as transparency and nonprofit effectiveness.

Most importantly, it needs to become a platform for critical voices and new thinking. In turn, it could push philanthropy further ahead. Without such leadership, it will remain rudderless and on the fringe of philanthropic thought.

 

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