A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

We Need More Bridge-Builders in Our Fractured Era

In our divided world, I admire people who can cross borders and bridge chasms. I think of these uniquely skilled bridge-builders as ambassadors, able to move and navigate among different worlds, connecting people, organizations, and ideas.

People I believe who model this bridge-building in philanthropy include Jennifer Astone of the Swift Foundation, who engages diverse funders to explore how needs and issues in the United States connect with issues and trends internationally; Doug Bauer of the Clark Foundation, who educates and links a wide array of funders, nonprofits, and government agencies in New York State and nationally; Richard Toth, formerly of the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, who with Grants Managers Network and Sara Engelhardt of the Foundation Center, created Project Streamline to bring associations of grantmakers, grantseekers, and fundraisers together to streamline practices; and Billie Hall of the Sunflower Foundation, who engages nonprofits and citizens throughout her state and beyond in health advocacy, bringing their voices to the policy table.

Last week I had the privilege of seeing an ambassador at work in philanthropy.

I served on a town hall panel on foundation advocacy at the American Public Health Association (APHA) Annual Meeting. The experience was out of the ordinary for me: outside our field and representing small funders together with large ones. Featured were Kuliva Wilburn, who ran the health grantmaking program at the Chicago Community Trust, Marjorie Paloma of the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, and Shelley Hearne of Johns Hopkins University and formerly of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

It was amazing to learn from these deeply dedicated, accomplished, and passionate colleagues. In spite of differences in asset size between their foundations and the small funders I work with, I saw commonalities between their approaches to advocacy and those of Exponent Philanthropy members.

Foundations both large and small recognize that:

  • Philanthropists have a natural capacity to convene diverse people, since they work with many organizations across communities and sectors.
  • Foundations are perfectly positioned—having broad perspective, diverse relationships, and freedom—to help citizens bring their voices and perspectives directly to the policy table, and thereby make the democratic process stronger and more inclusive.
  • Foundations can commission and report objective data to inform better policy.
  • Advocacy work should begin only after a great deal of engagement, listening, and learning by the funder—to map the landscape and illuminate the leverage points.

So how did this conference session come about? The catalyst was Claudia Baier of the VNA Foundation in Chicago.

Before joining philanthropy, Claudia attended the APHA Annual Meeting as a public health professional; once she became a grantmaker, she saw opportunities for funders focused on public health to network, develop knowledge, and organize. Claudia also saw how a more cohesive funder community inside APHA could help build collaboration between philanthropy, nonprofits, academic institutions, and government agencies working to advance health. Claudia pitched the idea to APHA’s Torrey Wasserman, who was enthusiastic; she and Torrey then worked out a series of three sessions for funders at the New Orleans conference.

Claudia received encouragement and backing from the VNA Foundation’s executive director, Rob DiLeonardi. Rob is a philanthropic entrepreneur and ambassador himself: he helped found Exponent Philanthropy 18 years ago, is active in the Chicago foundation community, and attends Council on Foundations conferences and other forums, bridging philanthropy networks. Rob and Claudia, I believe, see foundations of diverse sizes as allies in a larger force for good, in the same way they see any organization working on public health—whether funder, nonprofit, university, business, or government agency—as partners.

I came away thinking of the impact small, community-based foundations could make working with larger foundations. And I thought about how, in developing the series of funder sessions at APHA, Claudia and Torrey modeled the bridge-building essential to effective advocacy and changemaking. If more funders saw their role not as financiers only, but also as ambassadors, brokers, and mavens, what incredible collective work could be accomplished?

It takes imagination to see similarities in things that are different. It also takes being able to see that everything is related and interdependent. We could use more ambassadors in our fractured, divided era—more people like Claudia, Rob, and Torrey—to discern the things we actually share, point these out to us, and get us working together.

Andy-CarrollSenior Program Director Andy Carroll writes resources, designs workshops, and facilitates seminars for funders. Andy also dedicates a significant portion of his time to managing our Leadership Initiative that defines, validates, nurtures, and celebrates the many ways philanthropists lead. Andy has 25 years of experience in nonprofit organizations, and he enjoys talking with funders about their questions, interests, passions, and plans for making a difference. Follow Andy on Twitter @andycarrollexpo.

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