Creating Connections -- Not Competition -- Is Key Theme at Donors Forum's 40th Anniversary Kick-off

Monday, February 3, 2014

SpeirnSterling Speirn, nationally known speaker on nonprofit and philanthropy issues and recent past President of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, was the keynote speaker at our 40th Anniversary Kick-Off Event on Jan. 28.  

His theme -- creating collaborative advantages instead of competitive advantages --  related directly to Engaging for Impact, Donors Forum's strategic plan. Under the framework of the plan, Donors Forum is working to build the relationships and networks necessary to bring together groups to effectively collaborate on a common agenda.  

Mr. Speirn’s remarks focused on the need for re-invention, not just of Donors Forum but within and between society's major systems. He mentioned the many systems in the United States that are broken or under-performing, including education, talent delivery, social service and safety net, healthcare, job development, and more. He then noted that “underlying all these systems are the challenges and the troublesome condition of our traditional problem-solving approach, that in our proud and aging democracy seems to be unraveling.”  

Dealing with these problems will require an unprecedented and complete collaboration of the public, private, and independent sectors, Mr. Speirn said, though such alignment will not be easy. Getting all the players within a single sector is hard enough to accomplish; achieving collaboration between the sectors may seem almost foolhardy, but it is also essential, he said. 

He mentioned the independent sector’s freedom from competition, natural predators, and the need to raise funds as a strength and a challenge. “We are completely free to take risks, try new things, re-invent a regional association, but the same reasons and the same conditions also make us free not to,” Mr. Speirn said.He added that Donors Forum and other similarly situated organizations could provide the impetus and guidance needed to “draw the outlines of a visible hand that helps create the integrated impact of many independent but consciously interdependent actors in this city, this region, and this state.”  

He concluded his remarks with a strong call to everyone involved in working to advance social benefits, saying “Finding new ways to work is not an option; it is an imperative, and it strikes at the heart of how we define ourselves, our institutions, and how we come to redefine what success itself is.”  

A panel discussion followed, moderated by Mae Hong, Chicago Director of Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors, and was focused on challenges and benefits of cross-sector collaboration, along with some of the changes needed to make this collaboration happen. Panelists included Sharon Bush, Director of Elgin Programs and Senior Program Officer at Grand Victoria Foundation; Alejandra Ibañez, Program Officer at Oak Park River Forest Community Foundation; and Panelist Mark Ishaug, CEO of Threshholds. 

Ms. Bush focused on the power dynamic between foundations and grantees, saying that grantees can often provide strong leadership. “I believe grantees lead even when they do not know they are leading.”  

Ms. Ibañez touched on a similar subject, saying the relationship between funders and grantees needs to become more equal. “As a funder, we need to recognize the assets of our peers—and see them as peers and work with them in that vein. That is going to require a major paradigm shift,” she said. 

Mr. Ishaug discussed the importance of recognizing the considerable amount of change the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors have helped develop while also understanding the large amount of problems that exist and the systems changes needed to make them happen. “We have done so much good, we have so much to be proud of, but we have so much more to do,” he said.

-- Jason Hardy, Member Relations Support 

Parts of the program have been posted on Donors Forum's YouTube channel. Click here to watch. Click here to see photos from the reception which followed the program.