March 29, 2012; Source: Chronicle of Philanthropy

Six months after Steve Gunderson left the post, the Council on Foundations named its new president and CEO: Vikki Spruill, who worked most recently with the Ocean Conservancy. Spruill will officially begin leading the trade association for foundations on July 1, 2012. Before we get to Spruill, however, we should congratulate Jeff Clarke for what appears to have been a pretty successful stint as the Council’s interim executive director, a difficult role under any circumstances and certainly more difficult given the often headstrong nature of the Council’s foundation constituency.

But getting back to Spruill, the incoming leader’s biography is an interesting mix of two intersecting professional streams. Part of her professional career originates in communications and public relations. She spent 15 years at Ruder Finn, including five years as a senior VP, and also founded SeaWeb, which her bio says “uses strategic communications to advance ocean conservation.” In terms of philanthropy, she helped establish two organizations—FoundationWorks and the Philanthropic Awareness Initiative—which focused on how foundations could better use communications to improve their effectiveness and address their image.

Spruill’s work as an environmental activist includes not only SeaWeb, but board service with Environmental Media Services, work with the Pew- and Packard-supported Communications Partnership for Science and the Sea (a project of SeaWeb), and of course her past several years at the helm of the Ocean Conservancy. To NPQ, the idea of an environmental activist leading the Council on Foundations is surprising and refreshing.

Coming from a nonprofit background, Spruill will hopefully bring a nonprofit sensibility to the Council, helping it appreciate its obligation to support and build the capacity of the nonprofit sector. Undoubtedly, her new Council colleagues will be asking how Spruill will be strengthening the trade association, building membership, stabilizing and improving finances, and the like. But from our vantage point, we might have some different questions for the new COF head:

  • As an environmental activist, Spruill has to know how difficult it has been over the years to get foundations to ante up for environmental justice nonprofits—not the more established environmental/conservation groups (like the Ocean Conservancy, for example), but the smaller groups addressing issues at the nexus of racism, poverty, and environmental challenges. What does Spruill think philanthropy can and should do to address environmental justice issues?
  • At the Conservancy, it would seem Spruill got to experience the effects of the recession.  Contributions to the organization dropped from $16.1 million in the fiscal year ending in June of 2009 to $11.2 million the next year, a plunge of 30.4 percent. That has been the experience of many nonprofits, but foundation grantmaking is hardly making up the post-recession dry spell, and reports are that foundations plan to cut back grantmaking in 2012. What is the role of the foundation trade association in addressing the nonprofit sector’s multi-year, recession-induced revenue shortfall?
  • Much of Spruill’s work has been tied to big foundations. Packard has supported much of her environmental and philanthropic work, including putting $4.9 million toward the Ocean Conservancy. Other big funders of the Conservancy during her tenure have been the Walton Family Foundation ($6.8 million), the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation ($5.4 million), the Coca-Cola Foundation ($1.8 million), and the Bank of America Foundation ($1.3 million). Much of philanthropy, like much of the nonprofit sector, is significantly smaller than these behemoths. What might she do to address the needs of smaller foundations and the small nonprofits that are unlikely to encounter many seven-figure grant supporters?
  • Despite Spruill’s recent support from mainstream and conservative funders such as the Walton Family, she actually sits on the board of the activist-oriented Tides Foundation.  How does she imagine addressing the politically diverse membership of the foundation world, especially as it faces pressures and challenges from conservatives in Congress who think that philanthropic giving should replace government revenues? Likewise, how does she plan to address progressives such as the Occupy movement who increasingly see some big foundations as part of the one percent?
  • Two of the big concerns in philanthropy that her predecessor addressed, but now seem to have slipped off the foundations’ radar screen, have been rural grantmaking—raised by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) at a Council on Foundations annual meeting some years ago—and reporting the racial identities and characteristics of foundation grant recipients (a legislative effort in California that had some steam and national debate). Will Spruill revive efforts to push foundations to pay more attention to rural needs? Will she take a position on whether the foundation community should be monitoring and reporting on aspects of its own racial equity—in grantmaking, staffing, and leadership?
  • Philanthropy, like other parts of the nonprofit sector, has a number of policy-related challenges on the horizon, particularly occasional concerns about capping the deductibility of charitable donations for the superwealthy and pressures from inside and outside of philanthropy to induce foundation grantmaking and lending for for-profits in addition to 501(c)(3) nonprofits. In her position replacing a COF CEO who had been selected in part because of foundations’ fear of legislative initiatives emanating from the Senate Finance Committee, what will be her—not the Council’s, but Spruill’s—legislative agenda and her approach to dealing with Congress and the administration?

The Quarterly looks forward to posing these and other questions to the new Council CEO.  –Rick Cohen