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Strategic Philanthropy

Observations from the Field

By March 7, 2017October 13th, 2021No Comments

By Vikki Spruill, Council on Foundations

This post originally appeared on the Council on Foundation’s blog (February 13, 2017).

Over the past several months, Council staff have held conversations with foundation leaders who are grappling with how to understand philanthropy’s role as the new Administration challenges the way our country has traditionally operated. The pace with which significant changes are proposed and executed is making it difficult for even the best strategic jugglers to know how, if, or when to react. Most will admit that these are unusual times. Some describe what’s happening as a shock to the system, sending waves of confusion through organizations and around the globe.

Nonetheless, philanthropy remains a vital part of our thriving democracy, helping to support new thinking, existing projects, and experiments not simply with dollars but also with ideas. Philanthropic causes and interests are as varied as the challenges facing our communities from poverty alleviation, education reform, and social justice to scientific research, access to health care, and environmental conservation.

The Council’s unique national vantage point and diverse membership informs our view of philanthropy — its opportunities and challenges — and positions us to look forward. By engaging and gathering our members, we are able to aggregate information, spot trends, provide resources, ask questions, offer insights, and shape professional practice about what philanthropy needs to be to create lasting impact. The result is a stronger, better informed philanthropic network that helps foundations have an even bigger impact on the world around them.

Our recent conversations with members from across the globe and across the sector reveal strategic ways in which foundations are beginning to respond to these uncertain times and common threads in the questions they are asking themselves.


First, the speed of action from the Administration across a range of issues has made it challenging for foundations to respond as quickly as some might like. Philanthropy is most often focused on long-term systemic change and invests in nonprofit organizations that help solve problems. Most foundations work on 3, 5, 10 year or longer time horizons. Reconciling the need to be nimbler without losing sight of the end game may require foundations to rethink asset allocations, how quickly resources can be deployed, and whether or not to shift strategic directions. New skills and tactics may be needed to conduct speedy assessments.


Some are steadfast and determined to mount oppositions to new proposals and changes to existing ones. New initiatives and funds have been established to that end. New research and polling have been conducted. Investments have increased around activism and doubling down on critical programs. Are there ways in which the sector might better understand how strategies ranging from resistance to bridging divides might inform current and future work?


As foundations think through their program strategies, they are beginning to realize that they need to represent wide-ranging viewpoints when modifying existing strategies or designing new ones. Folks are questioning the words and messages used to describe what philanthropy does. Can we be less analytical and more emotive in how we convey the work? Is there simpler and more accessible language philanthropy can use to describe its work? How might philanthropy be understood as crucial to a thriving society? Who needs to be at the table who may not have been there before?


The polarization of the media, real-time social media, alternative facts, and the questioning of scientific evidence have led many to wonder if it is even possible to fully understand the basics of any situation or proposed idea. Healthy democracies assume an informed electorate and humans capable of reasoning together. As it gets more and more difficult on both sides of the aisle to determine real from not real, what are ways in which philanthropy might ensure the accuracy and rigor of evidence and information sharing and do so in a nonpartisan way?


Value systems have been challenged and divisions seem more entrenched than ever before. The sector has done bold and effective work in civic engagement, racial healing, and community organizing. How might some of those same strategies be applied to healing political and ideological divides? As the field fully embraces and implements work on diversity, equity, and inclusion, might we intentionally layer in political differences to the work already underway? Trust building is at the core of bridging all kinds of divisions and the sector has wonderful examples of having done so in communities across the globe.


Last summer, following the tragic shootings in Dallas, the Ford Foundation led an effort to unite many foundations around a simple and powerful concept that resulted in a campaign called #ReasonsForHope. The Council on Foundations helped promote this campaign and served as a repository for the thousands of responses that resulted from asking people to provide examples of what makes them hopeful. This effort struck an important chord of optimism; one that is important to maintain during uncertain times. How might philanthropy broaden a narrative of hope across a range of critical social issues? How might philanthropy serve to drive a new social contract of promise and potential? How might we amplify the many stories in which hope has shattered despair?


Against a new political backdrop, members see the value of our policy work to protect and strengthen our sector. Since the formation of the Council, we have worked to amplify and advocate for policies that protect and enhance charitable giving in this country and around the globe. Through the stories of our members we are able to bring to life for lawmakers the many important ways in which foundations work as drivers of social change to advance the common good. The groundwork we laid by building strong relationships on the Hill, among federal agencies, and with the Administration has served us well. Now, as comprehensive tax reform looms on the horizon, we are ready. We have enhanced our government relations capacity and are working in close collaboration with our policy colleagues. Our team of consultants and advisors keep us apprised of breaking developments. Never has it been more important to come together as a field of foundations and grantmakers to ensure and enhance tax provisions that allow for the great work being done. As foundations are looked to more and more to help solve the many disparate problems facing our planet, it has never been more critical to explain philanthropy’s unique role as problem solver, risk taker, and innovator.

As we continue to navigate new territory over the next months and years, let us continue to reflect, share, and learn from one another to strengthen the work of philanthropy in communities across the globe.

About Vikki Spruill

Vikki Spruill is President and CEO of the Council on Foundations, a national nonprofit association of philanthropic organizations and corporations. As a leading voice for the American philanthropic sector, Vikki frequently speaks about the impact and value of American philanthropy, as well as the importance of charitable giving.