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Posts Tagged ‘Communications Network blog’

Much as Haiti can serve as a test case for philanthropic efforts to rebuild a country destroyed by natural disaster, Detroit is emerging as a model for renewal domestically.

Carol Goss of the Skillman Foundation pointed out the promise in Motor City in a March 26 article in the Detroit News: “We can be a model of how to turn around a city and a region.” Skillman is just one of several foundations collaborating to rebuild and rethink all aspects of the city, from its residents’ educational needs to city planning to the arts.

Philanthropic efforts to revive the city’s arts—particularly in establishing a “creative corridor” downtown—are drawing extra attention. “If we could ever try out all these ideas we’ve been cooking up about the arts as an engine of urban renewal—and really do it—this is the place to do it,” said Andras Szanto of AEA Consulting in a March 29 airing of WNYC Radio’s Soundcheck. The show’s host, John Schaefer, compared Detroit to  New York some three and four decades ago, when first punk music and then hip hop culture emerged as vibrant art forms and breathed new life into the city before becoming global cultural forces

Detroit does indeed offer a promising case for foundations: The city was struggling more than most American urban centers before the recession. And its nonprofits have long been too dependent on the severely depressed automotive industry.

But the clock is ticking: The Kresge Foundation’s Rip Rapson told the News that the philanthropic effort has about 18 months to achieve its goals. And alarm bells are already sounding. The News quoted several community leaders skeptical of the efforts, seeing the work as a “takeover” from what appears to be an emerging, unaccountable “fourth branch of government.”

The ever-astute Bruce Trachtenberg wrote in a March 26 post to the Communications Network’s blog that such concerns testify to the still large gap between the public’s understanding of what foundations do and what motivates them—something the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative documents. Independent foundation consultant Bob Hughes wrote in an April 6 post to the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s blog that it’s not just that foundations need to be more open about their activities. A sustained conversation is also required so that the public and organized philanthropy can be aligned.

It will take the whole village of Detroit—as elsewhere—to bring about true social change.

—Jane Wales

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Might trustees be the solution to the woeful lack of knowledge civically engaged Americans have about foundations?

That’s the hypothesis of an experiment underway from the Philanthropy Awareness Initiative. PAI is the foundation-funded organization that has reported in study after study that very few engaged Americans, those who represent the 12 percent of the adult population active in their communities as civic or business leaders could cite even one example of a foundation benefiting its community or addressing their concerns. As I noted in a post about PAI’s latest survey, it is the culture of private foundations to shun the spotlight and direct attention to the issues they advance or the grantees they support. This notion is seconded in another recent survey, this one from the Council of Michigan Foundations. According to this survey, foundation trustees tend to focus on their role as investing, growing and distributing foundation resources, not in communicating with other non-foundation leaders.

But what if that changed? Building on its survey, the Council teamed up with PAI to launch a pilot project with 14 members through which they have offered “message training” to trustees, focused on the value of foundations, well beyond their grant-making role. The goal is to encourage trustees to engage peers in their personal and professional networks – in essence, enlisting trustees as strategic foundation communicators. In a Jan. 20 post for the Communications Network blog, the Council’s Rebecca Noricks offered details about this Philanthropy 3-D-Michigan (3D) pilot, noting that its goal is to develop a new communications model for the field. It has the potential to radically change traditional foundation communications and the heavy reliance on press releases about grants, she said, as well as to boost understanding about the work of foundations. The organization is currently testing and evaluating the pilot, with plans to release a report this spring on its progress and adapt it for use among grant-making affinity groups in Indiana and Wisconsin.

Early comments from participants suggest the pilot is on to something. Noricks quotes Joseph M. Stewart, chair of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, saying that trustees should be “educating others to the important role that foundations play in society today and letting other leaders from other sectors know we want to work with them. Together we can make a difference. Better communication methods and techniques is one way that can be achieved.”

Given the renewed interest in collaboration across sectors, Stewart makes an important point. Leaders throughout society need to know that foundations are transparent, open and willing partners.  Foundation trustees are often employed by or have close ties with for-profit or nonprofit organizations.  There could be substantial, long-term payoffs if trustees were to directly talk to others in their networks about foundation missions, programs and successes. Foundation leaders worry that the story of philanthropy is not well told. Awareness of PAI’s project may spur some to discuss the idea with their trustees now.

-Jane Wales

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