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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