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What Can Associations of Grantmakers Teach You?

In mid-July of this year, I had the opportunity to attend the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers conference (#ForumCon17) in San Francisco. This conference brings together a large swath of the organizations that provide networking and support functions to foundations across the United States.

I wanted to share some of my takeaways from time at the conference—some of which relate specifically to the conference and some to the valuable side conversations that happen when you bring smart, passionate people together.

1. Welcome United Philanthropy Forum. The conference unveiled a much-anticipated new brand for the organization. While you might be inclined to shrug this off as less-than-useful information, the rebrand is an important development for philanthropy.  It represents a big-tent approach to strategically working together to make philanthropy more inclusive, responsive, and effective. A huge congratulations goes out to the Forum team for developing and executing the wonderful launch!

2. Have we entered the Age of the Strategic Follower? From the concept of coming together under a big tent to the question of how to most effectively address diversity, equity, and inclusion questions, several conversations revealed a subtle question about how to be a strategic follower. The conference demonstrated impressive work being done in many areas, most notably around equity and inclusion issues. As organizations support each other in the sector, how can we better amplify those doing excellent work without feeling like it diminishes anyone else’s important role, including our own? In a related post, I’ve considered the concept of a strategic follower.

3. Spend your brand. Dr. Robert K. Ross, President and CEO of The California Endowment gave an address that spanned the opioid epidemic and its similarity to the crack-cocaine epidemic, modern day politics, and branding. It was his comments on branding that particularly struck me. He noted that we work so hard to build up our brand in philanthropy and then we are reluctant to use that brand to advance our missions (his estimate was we use only 2%)—we protect, protect, protect. Dr. Ross encouraged philanthropy to spend their brand in pursuit of their mission, which led me to wonder: What would a 5% brand payout look like?

4. Ethics matter in collaboration. As part of a collaborative effort, I joined colleagues from Management Assistance Group and Community Wealth Partners to share seven key principles for ethical collaboration in philanthropy. The session attendees discussed what excited them and what made them nervous about each of the principles. The attendees then recorded their thoughts and comments about the principles on large flip chart paper. The two principles that elicited the most written reflection were:

a. How we collaborate is as important as the goals we seek to accomplish. While it is important to have a goal, considerate and values-driven process matters in collaboration. The ends do not justify the means.

b. Collaboration carries explicit and implicit costs. The principle of equity should guide resource allocations, including, where appropriate, compensating for participation.

For more on collaboration and ethics, learn about all seven principles.

5. Be bold in your risk taking for good. Going back to Dr. Ross; after framing our work as civic, moral, and spiritual, he offered a thought experiment. Think on the family who are part of where you are today—parents, grandparents, great-great-great grandparents. “Someone in your family struggled, at some point…someone weathered a storm so that you could be here today, with the privilege to do this work. Remember that and make it count.”

So, what can associations of grantmakers teach you?  Well they taught me a lot. I walked away with more questions than answers; new insights; and a renewed sense of commitment. To check out what other people learned, check out #forumcon17 on Twitter or visit the United Philanthropy Forum blog.

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