Member Voices-Descending from 100,000 Feet

Two weeks ago my organization, the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP), hosted its biennial three-day conference in Boston for 400-plus foundation senior leaders and trustees. Attendees represented foundations of all sizes — from small community foundations in the American South to funders with an international reach. In those three days, foundation leaders were able to engage in an array of topics, from CEP’s favorite, the funder-grantee relationship, to providing helpful feedback in difficult conversations.

When I describe my work as an analyst on the assessment and advisory services team at CEP, I often note how foundations operate at a level of 50,000 feet, engaging in an array of initiatives while keeping an eye on how all of those things forward the foundation’s mission. At CEP, it often feels as though we work at a level of 100,000 feet. On any given day we are working with 20 or more foundations to help them improve their effectiveness. Our conference, themed “Leading Effective Foundations,” was exciting not just because there was space for funders to collaborate, convene, and learn together, but also for my CEP colleagues and me, it was energizing to drop down a few thousand feet and engage even more deeply with the field we seek to serve.

Following this theme of engagement, one of my favorite aspects of those three days was CEP President Phil Buchanan’s plenary on “Leading Effective Foundations in Complex, Changing Times.” Phil presented data on three distinct but related themes from recent CEP studies on how foundation CEOs are or are not reacting to and changing in a new political context, foundation CEOs’ perceptions of the future of philanthropy, and of course the bread and butter of everyone’s work — the funder-grantee relationship.

After Phil presented the research findings on each of these topics, tables of attendees were asked to come together to respond, react, and engage with the research, contextualizing the data in their own organizations’ stories and experiences. One question Phil posed to the room followed his presentation on CEOs’ perceptions of the future of philanthropy (hint, it isn’t especially bright): “What can foundations do to fully realize their potential — and what would it take to really do that?”

In our research, 62 percent of foundation leaders said the largest barriers to change were internal. When reacting to this data point in discussions, some in the audience were defensive, others simply nodded their heads, and even others were giddy in their seats, their frustrations validated by those around them. Yet no matter everyone’s reaction to this data, or to the shifting context in national politics, or even to the funder-grantee relationship, my hope is that everyone in the room walked away with a valuable lesson. In leading effective foundations, perhaps we should all make the effort to engage a bit deeper with our field, with each other, and with the grantees with whom we partner in our work – just as EPIP is doing in communities across the nation.


 Hayden Couvillion, EPIP Boston Steering Committee member and Analyst at CEP