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CEO Forum Provides Chance to Discuss Challenges of Leadership – and Solutions


The benefits of association are – according to much of the literature on foundation philanthropy – among the most powerful tools for learning and professional development in the field. Interaction with colleagues offers valuable opportunities for building networks that are useful over the long term. SECF’s recent CEO Forum, held last week in Charleston, South Carolina, was no exception.

More than 40 foundation chief executives gathered over two days to study, reflect and share their experiences and thoughts on the future of philanthropy in the United States. Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, discussed the findings of one of the Center’s recent research projects, The Future of Foundation Philanthropy: The CEO Perspective. The survey data, collected from foundation leaders across the country, provided the perfect backdrop for helping us think about our own effectiveness.

Among the findings were a perception that we could be doing more than we are, that our impact could be greater and that we have control over our perceived barriers. The personal reflections of national foundation leaders contained in the report reminded us that we are not alone in our challenges and opportunities for growth and impact. Our colleagues share many of the same challenges, though our roles in our communities vary widely. Some of us are seasoned and some are new to the role and to the field. That mix of experience and fresh perspective enriched the conversations.

The South faces some difficult issues (equity, food insecurity, education attainment, for example) that all of us wrestle with one way or another. With great honesty and humility, we shared many of our internal and external barriers that make this work difficult at times – and we offered ideas for overcoming them. Some of us deal with challenges of board engagement, cultures of complacency, fear of failure, alignment of goals and connecting with those we seek to help.

Yet as easily as the challenges were brought forth, the opportunities also seemed abundant. Collaboration with other funders, convening the right people at the time, shaping public policy, being thought leaders and listening to constituents – all these hold great promise for improved effectiveness and increased impact in our work and in our communities. Story after story about how we tackle these challenges inspired us, gave us new perspective and gave us hope. As tough as the issues are, we continue to learn, to develop new strategies and to engage in new ways.

Most of all, we found encouragement from each other. What we have in common is a desire to share, learn, offer input and even to permit a little humor when appropriate. We may not have all the answers, but we have a tremendous network. I plan to stay connected.

Mason Rummel is president of the James Graham Brown Foundation.

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