July 2012; Source: Council on Foundations

Last week, the new CEO of the Council on Foundations, Vikki Spruill, sent an e-mail to her colleagues that included a look at her vision for organized philanthropy. Although Spruill attended the Council’s annual meeting in Los Angeles earlier this year, that was before her official start date. Now that she is on, her official statements will be important data for nonprofits to mine in order to understand and predict where organized philanthropy is heading.

How will Spruill lead the foundation sector? What new directions will she encourage and support? In this statement, Spruill offers an upbeat perspective on the societal significance of philanthropic innovation, citing the array of foundation accomplishments that the sector typically lauds, such as the polio vaccine, Sesame Street, and the national 911 system, but also emphasizing philanthropy’s work on more contemporary issues, such as leadership on the HIV/AIDS crisis, work with immigrant populations, and foundation engagement with education.

Spruill states that organized philanthropy faces “its most critical moment…right now. At a time when our world faces a storm of converging challenges with dwindling resources, philanthropy’s positive impact remains a mystery to far too many. Swirling through this storm is a lack of understanding about the role philanthropy plays in society as investor, innovator, leader, and partner. Yet we all know philanthropy is more relevant and necessary than ever. That’s why we must seize the imperative to help society better understand philanthropy’s impact and contributions.”

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In this first statement, Spruill was unlikely to take on the questions we posed for her when she was first announced as Steve Gunderson’s successor. As Spruill writes, there is much to laud about the accomplishments of philanthropy in bettering our world. At the same time, she and her colleagues have to remember that the vehicle for the delivery of philanthropy’s collective value is the nonprofit sector. Nonprofits and NGOs are on the front lines of social change here and overseas, and without their existence and efforts, foundation impact would be much diminished.

A few years ago, NPQ’s study of the nonprofit infrastructure noted that most infrastructure organizations see themselves as serving and supporting grantmaking foundations and operating charities—except for the infrastructure organizations created by the foundation sector, which had a much more narrow conception of who or what they existed to bolster and promote. When foundations answer Spruill’s charge to help society understand “philanthropy’s impact and contributions,” they should remember that it is through nonprofits that foundations deliver the goods.—Rick Cohen