Guest Post by Betsey Russell, Southeastern Council of Foundations
Usually, at the end of three action-packed days of the Forum of Regional Associations of Grantmakers conference, you’d expect to sit through one last pat-on-the-back speaker, trying to affect polite interest while secretly mapping out the quickest route to the airport. After all, you’ve been collecting new ideas for more than 48 solid hours. What else is there to learn?
But every now and then, you get a speaker like Byron Harrell, who turns the room on its ear and makes you sit up and take notice.
I’ve been working in the field of philanthropy for nearly 20 years, so I confess it takes a lot to make me sit up sometimes. I like a speaker who really tells it like it is – in plain language that doesn’t sugar coat some difficult points.
Byron’s points weren’t all that easy to swallow, but they were well made. Charitable foundations of all stripes will need to prove their validity and relevance over and over again in the coming years. Philanthropy is no longer a back-room quiet conversation, but is rapidly becoming a national — and increasingly public — conversation. Foundations may have to change decades of practice and attitudes to remain a meaningful part of that conversation. And that means regional associations need to change as well.
“How will regional associations remain relevant if their underlying member foundations do not?” Byron asked. It’s a scary question, but he did offer some suggestions for new ways in which regionals can help their members.
- Regional associations can recognize their role in what he calls the “upcoming three-way philanthropy-public-government conversation.
- Regional associations can help foundations discuss and determine their appropriate role in a new environment.
- Regional associations can also provide a space to help foundations discuss failure and lessons learned.
- Regional associations can help foundations communicate about their talents and the good things they do that work well.
- Regional associations can help get the ear of government in a way that individual foundations cannot — a way that helps elected leaders understand the value of philanthropy that extends far beyond money.
- Likewise, regional associations also can help their members better understand government, and see beyond bureaucracy.
“The future is bright for membership organizations that add value and that help find a new balance between government, public, business and wealth. You will succeed because your members succeed and heaven help you if your underlying members lose their political and popular legitimacy.”
It takes some adjustment to move beyond membership recruiting, professional development programs and the like. It means a great deal of uncertainty for regional associations, and no doubt a little fallout here and there.
But I have to confess, after nearly two decades, I’m ready for some changes in the status quo. I’m excited about the new challenges of a new world, and the chance to re-invent.
How do you feel about it?
Betsey Russell is a veteran consultant who currently serves as the Director of Marketing & Communications for the Southeastern Council of Foundations.