Philanthropy for Extraordinary Times

Last week we hosted Philanthropy for Extraordinary Times, a conversation with the Louis W. Hill, Jr. Fellows in Philanthropy. The Hill Fellowship program, supported by the Grotto Foundation and the Northwest Area Foundation, hosted six distinguished leaders in philanthropy to promote new thinking and action in public affairs. John Cowles, Jr., Sage Cowles, Chuck Denny, Reatha Clark King, Joseph Selvaggio, and Laura Waterman Wittstock dedicated a year of study to furthering discussion in the field of philanthropy, culminating in a public presentation. Last week, the Hill Fellows gathered for the culmination of five years of scholarly reflections, ideas and action. This post includes my opening remarks and reflections following the event:

The idea for this event began as a conversation nearly a year ago between my colleague, Marsha Freeman, and myself. That conversation has continued, and brought in many more voices and many more ideas. A year ago, we were looking back at what each of the six Hill Fellows had done. Where were there overlapping themes? Where were common ideas? Fundamental differences? For example, some Fellows looked at philanthropy by individuals, others looked at philanthropy in more of a community context, and still others really focused on issues of the philanthropic sector writ large. All were concerned in some way with philanthropy’s role in society.

As the conversations deepened, however, particularly when we got the Fellows together and with Ellis Bullock (Executive Director of the Grotto Foundation) and Kevin Walker (President and CEO of the Northwest Area Foundation), the tone shifted dramatically to looking ahead, looking to the future, given what seem to be “extraordinary times.”

• What is going to be the role of philanthropy relative to government, private corporations, other nonprofits, and communities, after the economic cataclysm?

• Shouldn’t we challenge our very definition of “philanthropy,” and broaden it beyond simply notions of giving and beyond the idea that philanthropy is what is done by traditional philanthropic institutions?

Probably most stunning for me was when Kevin Walker said at the end of one of our gatherings, “it is as if we began the Hill Fellowship in 1925 and now, six years later, it is 1931, and the whole world has changed.”

What has struck me throughout these conversations, including the event on Thursday, is that Minnesota’s philanthropic leaders are not self-satisfied or wistful for the days of innovative corporate leadership, powerful wealthy families and inspired philanthropy. Some of the Hill Fellows themselves represent this older tradition but they are uninterested in dwelling there. Instead, they continue to push us to think bigger and differently about what philanthropy, or the “love of mankind,” means today and for tomorrow. We heard Fellows challenge institutional philanthropy to engage directly in public policy and take more risks, spend beyond the required 5% distribution rate to help alleviate today’s needs, reduce their own administrative expenses, and question the social value of holding funds in “perpetuity.” Some of these challenges echoed a recent and provocative op-ed column in the Star Tribune by Louis Hohlfeld, a retired senior program officer of the McKnight Foundation. From the audience, we heard about new ways of giving and new kinds of relationships being formed between givers and receivers through e-philanthropy and a new project at the St. Paul Foundation.

These are indeed extraordinary times and they take leaders who, in the words of Reatha Clark King, both think and act, and, I would add, talk. As Jon Pratt said in his wrap-up comments, this conversation is “to be continued.” Thinking, acting, and talking – in whatever order, they must all occur. PubTalkers, what do you think?

Check our website later this week to download the video of the event.

Comments

I attended the event to hear about philanthropy from the best and my expectations were exceeded. It gave me more ideas for the vision I'm moving toward and acquainted me with like minded people.

It also took philanthrophy even more out of the "rich only" category which was a blessing.

Thank you

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