Thursday, August 16, 2007

Inside community foundations

My opinion piece in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle stirred a few pots. I've heard from philanthropists and foundation leaders from around the world. Lots of people emailed me directly. Some folks posted comments on the newspaper's website, such as this one from Nebraska:

"Community Foundation Ideas from Nebraska: The Omaha Community Foundation is helping to develop a city wide community design plan called Omaha by Design that values the unique character of each neighborhood. ... I think the HomeTown Competitiveness model (Youth, Entrepreneurship, Leadership, Charitable giving toward community development) can be applied at the neighborhood level in large urban settings if the neighborhood has a good mix of business and residential."

However, I hadn't heard much from the community foundations in my own back yard (San Francisco Bay Area). Today, finally, my phone rang.

"What about the regional work we do in the arts? And the Bay Area Livable Communities Initiative? And the partnerships we've run on immigration or with private foundations to spur support for individual artists?"

These are fair comments. Local community foundations do work together - and the examples above are real, important, and - in some cases - serve as models for this state and other regions.

I take full credit and responsibility for the piece I wrote. And I knew about these initiatives and deliberately didn't sing their praises.

The point of the article was to inform the readers of the paper - hundreds of thousands of individuals across northern California - of the resources, skills, talents, and opportunities that community foundations represent. I liken these readers to "my cabbie"- the archetypal informant I ask whenever I travel to a new city, "Do you know about your local community foundation?" Sometimes they do. Usually they don't. I've interrogated cab drivers for years. It amuses me that Jim Collins uses "cab drivers who say "we're really proud of our orchestra"" as an indicator of "distinctive impact."* I want cab drivers to sing the praises of community foundations. Or at least know they exist.

My phone caller's concerns were legitimate. But I wasn't writing a critique of community foundations, I was writing a "call to community." If the piece were successful, it wasn't going to make my phone ring, it would ring the phones of community foundations.

All of this led me to think about two things - first, how we measure success in our own work (the 'we' in this case is me, my company, and all foundations). In this case, my measure of success would be the public's outreach to community foundations. So, if you work for a community foundation, let me know if your phones are ringing.

My second thought was about how we all need to put ourselves in the shoes of our public/customers/constituents. Usually I write in the trade press - about philanthropy, for philanthropy, by philanthropy. This piece was written for the public - the same public that community foundations serve - not the community foundations themselves. It wasn't an "inside baseball" discussion of all that these organizations can do, it was intended more as "what I would tell my mother" about community foundations.

There are lots of great stories about the good work that community foundations do - about their partnerships, opportunities, and successes. There is even a new benchmarking resource to collect and organize these stories. But we have to make sure that our communities know these foundations are there, doing this work, if any of it is going to matter.

Let me continue the 'inside baseball' metaphor. To my mind, it doesn't matter if the local major league team has the greatest strategy in the world for a "bottom of the ninth, down by one, two out, man on" situation, if the fans have become so disenchanted by steroid and payroll scandals that they're no longer watching. I do believe its important that foundations do their work well, thoughtfully, creatively, and effectively. And, I think its as important that the public know about it.

* See Jim Collins, Good to Great and the Social Sectors, 2005, p. 6.

1 comment:

Trista Harris said...

I think that you are right that community foundations are in a unique position in communities to leverage partnership and move forward community agendas but in my experience community foundation become "reactive"to community requests rather than driving the agenda. I think this is for two reasons. 1) many community foundations host community meetings to determine their priorities and then only look at proposals that come in the door, rather than drumming up business. 2) Community foundations are in a similar boat as many nonprofits, they need donors to continue their work and being proactive about policy issues can sometime alienate your donors.