Council on Foundations Loses President, Leaving Organized Philanthropy with Questions

By Flying Puffin (MammutUploaded by FunkMonk) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

March 26, 2018; Chronicle of Philanthropy

Vikki Spruill is leaving as the president of the national Council on Foundations after an almost six-year tenure to go to the New England Aquarium. Alex Daniels of the Chronicle of Philanthropy has captured the preliminary response to this transition with some accuracy, reflecting the impression some have that the organization has grown “too low key” on important policy issues and lacks the intellectual vibrancy and energy present in the sector.

On top of that, CoF’s coffers are greatly reduced even from when Spruill took over, in part to correct a trend of deficit spending. Over her tenure, the organization’s net assets have been reduced by half, as it has continued in many of those years to run deficits over $1 million—sometimes close to $3 million, according to the group’s 990 reports.

We are not, by the way, laying this at Spruill’s feet. In fact, the exact opposite is true.

In 2015, Emmett Carson, the president of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation and a voice of some influence in the field of philanthropy, suggested that Independent Sector and the Council on Foundations, two of the largest infrastructure groups in the nonprofit and philanthropic sector, should merge. That was upon the resignation of the then-executive of Independent Sector. Carson had been deeply involved in both organizations. At that time, he wrote,

Unfortunately, each is likely to fall short of igniting the passion, power, and influence of the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors. Why? The pattern of each organization has been largely to talk to their members about themselves and engage in public policy only as it relates to narrow discussions about the tax code and regulations that affect our sector’s operations.

That is, both were too focused on institutional questions and were missing the point of the sector’s work. We believe, as we did then, that Carson was right about some of his insights but wrong about the merger thought. The urge to create one mammoth out of two mini-mammoths is probably heading in the wrong direction.

When trying to develop and advance a vision of the future of a community—a sector, in this case—there are two important principles to observe: Do you have the right people in the room, and are you asking the right questions? In this case, observers are saying the central body doesn’t reflect the vibrancy of the whole, and that is a problem worth mulling over.—Ruth McCambridge

  • About the time that Vicki Spruill came on board the Council board decided to axe its member services groups, have only one annual meeting and eliminate the annual member group meetings focused on community foundations, corporate and family foundations. The argument at the time was that the Internet could create the connections and sharing between foundations that they were getting from the Council. This was nonsense then as now. The Council was turned almost exclusively into a trade organization, something that it had historically never been. I believe without the daily engagement with members on a broad range of issues affecting the field of philanthropy the connections the Council had with members atrophied and the Council lost focus. I know community foundations best, and many of the community foundations saw that they were not getting value for their membership dues and dropped out, especially the larger ones, One of the many unintended consequences of dropping member services was an increasing lack of commitment to the Council and a further loss of revenue. The Council has backtracked somewhat by hiring new member services individuals, but they cannot and do not make up for loss of value and focus on issues that the multi-person groups of member services teams provided. If the Council wants to move forward it should be bold and do more not less. Otherwise it will continue its downward spiral.

    From: Eleanor W. Sacks, Independent Scholar

    • Third Sector Radio USA

      We agree with Ms. Sacks. Too often associations of nonprofits play the risk averse card of catering to the “lowest common denominator” within their group. A better idea is to constantly listen to the membership and offer an array of services, with some proven services perhaps subsidizing innovation.

  • Allen Smart

    Having worked with and in philanthropy-local, regional and national- over the course of the past 20 years, I don’t recall ever having had a conversation about Council of Foundations. With the very personalized and skilled presence(and leadership) of the national and regional affinity groups, I don’t think anyone has articulated to me what gap that Council of Foundations is supposed to fill?

  • Patrick Taylor

    I’ve been in philanthropy for 10 years, and closely involved with several affinity groups. I see a lot of value with GEO, GMN/PEAK, Foundation Center, TAG, NCRP, CEP, TAG, et. al., but the value of COF has never been clear to me. I’ve never gone to their conference, and they don’t seem to be a big part of discussions in philanthropy, beyond chiming in about federal policies that affect philanthropy.