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Consider the Giraffe, That Improbable Change Agent

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Last year my organization completed an intensive strategic planning process that relied -- and continues to rely -- on input from the nonprofit sector across the state of Illinois to identify what the priorities should be for an association of nonprofits and foundations serving a state with more than its share of intractable problems.

Among the priorities identified by our constituents was the exploration of new approaches through which grantmakers and nonprofits could better engage with business and government leaders to begin to chip away at our state's most pressing issues.

This notion of collective action, of leveraging existing collaborations and creating new ones that can innovate and launch creative new methods for social change, has become a key pillar of Donors Forum's work moving forward.

While my organization is focused on the challenges of Illinois, the theme of collective action and how it can have high impact at the national level was the focus of an address given late last month in Chicago by former W.K. Kellogg Foundation President and CEO Sterling Speirn. The event kicked off a year-long celebration to celebrate Donors Forum's 40th anniversary.

During his remarks, Speirn asked, What do we need to do to address our nation's critical problems that seem so embedded in our society and that require complex, collaborative approaches to resolve? Why can't we make faster progress in our efforts to reform public education, social service systems, or our problem-solving systems in general?

Speirn thoughtfully and forcefully put forward his ideas for how the nonprofit sector -- NGOs and foundations -- can be a catalyst for meaningful social impact. All three sectors -- public, corporate, and independent, need to collaborate and innovate if there is to be progress, a particular challenge given the difficulties in getting entities within just one sector to work together. Building connections within and between sectors needs to be at the epicenter of our problem-solving efforts.

The value the independent sector brings to the table, Speirn pointed out, is its freedom from the sometimes predatory nature of competition, and its ability to take risks; but if you're free to take risks, you're also free not to. In that regard the former Kellogg Foundation CEO recognized the critical role for regional philanthropic associations in rallying constituents for more aggressive problem-solving approaches to create positive change in their communities:

In addition to encouraging regional associations to "provide a new connecting force within the independent sector," Speirn offered some words of reflection for grantmaking foundations. He encouraged introspection, for a foundation to, as Socrates said, "know thyself." Foundations must question the inherent constraints of organized philanthropy if they are going to adapt to meet current societal challenges. Speirn channeled the great observer of American philanthropy Waldemar Nielson, who wrote in his book, The Big Foundations:

"In the great jungle of American democracy and capitalism, there is no more strange or improbable creature than a private foundation. Private foundations are virtually a denial of basic premises: aristocratic institutions living on the pleasures and indulgence of an egalitarian society; aggregations of private wealth which, contrary to the proclaimed instincts of Economic Man, have been conveyed to public purpose. Like the giraffe, they could not possibly exist, but they do."

Speirn implored foundations and all philanthropists to develop their cooperative, rather than competitive, advantage and to harness their collective resources, and to innovate to tackle complex problems. "Finding new ways of working is not an option, it is an imperative, he said. "And it strikes at the heart of how we define ourselves, our institutions, and how we come to redefine what success really is."

These themes of partnerships and connections and harnessing shared resources and innovation should be at the heart of our sector's work in the coming years (not just the organization I lead. We should be looking to the future, harnessing the power of collaboration, with diverse representation from all sectors, to begin to truly chip away at our state's most intractable challenges.

But it's easier said than done. We can't do that, nor could any other state or region do that, without voices: Community voices, the voices of government and business leaders, and those from the nonprofit and philanthropic sector. And as a panel of nonprofit and foundation leaders pointed out in response to Speirn's remarks, collaborations will be most successful when those at the table have an equal stake in the outcome.

Sterling Speirn's thoughtful and challenging metaphor for philanthropy as improbable -- a giraffe in the jungle, grazing far off the ground -- elicited a chuckle from the audience of grantmakers and nonprofit leaders that afternoon. But then a nonprofit executive on the response panel re-appropriated that description and applied it to the many nonprofits laboring tirelessly in communities all over the state: Yes, it may be improbable, but it's also fast and nimble, a survivor who connects the ground with necessary resources. This, too, is a picture of our sector.

I think that bodes well for the future of the sector and our ability to create lasting change. Can we make the necessary changes, set aside our differences (including the differences in status, influence and power), and still create connective spaces for honest exchanges to take place in order to achieve true change? That is our challenge and it's one I hope my organization, and others, aren't afraid to tackle for the sake of lasting social impact.