Summer 2008

Best and Worst of the COF Summit


Written by: Aaron Dorfman

Date: August 05, 2008

One of the most enjoyable elements of my job is attending many of the philanthropic conferences offered throughout the year. I get to have rich conversations with people who are passionate about improving the world through philanthropy. I learn a thing or two from keynote speakers and workshop presenters. And I keep NCRP’s watchdogging work sharp by maintaining a feel for the sector.

But attending conferences also is one of the most frustrating and disappointing elements of my job. I often leave feeling that grantmakers have spent huge amounts of money without much to show for it, and that they have reinforced status-quo philanthropic thinking that isn’t helpful to grantees or to those with the least power and wealth. It’s a rare occurrence that I feel as though anything tangible has changed for the better as a result of a conference.

Recently, the Council on Foundations (COF) held the granddaddy of all philanthropic conferences. It officially was called “Philanthropy’s Vision: A Leadership Summit” and approximately 3,000 people attended. COF usually holds three separate conferences each year: its annual conference, a family foundations conference and a community foundations conference. This year, it combined all three into this one mega-conference. Some informally began calling it “Philanthropolooza” because, like the music/comedy/dance/craft extravaganza Lollapalooza,[i] the Summit offered a little something for everyone.

Conferences of the Council on Foundations are both a reflection of current thinking inside foundations and a force that shapes thinking. So it’s no surprise that this year’s summit had both high and low points. I offer here my thoughts about the best and the worst (in no particular order) of the COF Summit.


Plenary session on human rights

The luncheon plenary session on Monday, May 5, devoted to discussing human rights and philanthropy’s role in promoting its advancement, absolutely was one of the best moments of the Summit. Compliments are due to COF for organizing this panel discussion and for giving it a prime slot on the agenda. As Gara LaMarche[ii] (who moderated the discussion) noted, it was the first time ever that COF has held a plenary devoted to the topic of human rights. The panelists were impressive human rights activists: Mary Robinson (former president of Ireland and former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights), Anthony Romero (executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union), and Kumi Naidoo (secretary general and CEO of CIVICUS).

Sherece West[iii] set the tone in her introductory remarks when she said, “Philanthropy has an obligation to provide resources to advance human rights for all. Philanthropy has a role to provide resources to organize and advocate, convene and facilitate, put people in touch with one another to collaborate and build coalitions…”

Kumi Naidoo challenged foundations to fund for the long haul. “I think the choice for foundations is to ask the question about whether you want to make investments that have quick, short-term return without it having the possibility of being sustained into the future. If we are serious about making philanthropic investments that would actually ensure that they are sustainable over time, we cannot ignore the human rights environment and the democratic environment that we find,” he said. “I have jokingly said recently that there’s a very thin line between philanthropy and foolanthropy. I want to make the point that too many program officers are under pressure to show quick results. … The struggle for justice, the struggle for human rights, the struggle to end global poverty—these are all marathons, they’re not sprints.”

Breakout sessions exploring community organizing and advocacy

The 2008 Summit included more substantive breakout sessions about community organizing, advocacy, civic engagement and social justice than any other COF gathering. NCRP is a founding member of the Social Justice Philanthropy Collaborative,[iv] which produced a guide to the Summit. In the guide, we highlighted 35 breakout sessions that substantively were relevant for funders who care about issues of fairness, justice and democracy (shortened from an initial list of more than 50 relevant sessions). Funders who prioritize giving of this type didn’t feel marginalized at this COF gathering, whereas they felt so in the past. Here’s a taste of what was offered:

One session, “Evaluating Advocacy Grants,” was designed to help funders get better at evaluating outcomes for their grants supporting advocacy. This is important because there is great pressure to show the impact of philanthropic giving, and some funders are finding it challenging to show how their grants are advancing systems change. Dave Beckwith from the Needmor Fund, Marcia Egbert from the George Gund Foundation and Sue Hoechstetter from Alliance for Justice led this session.

Another session explored how foundations can take the lead in strengthening democracy by funding civic engagement. Cris Doby of the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, Gerri Mannion of the Carnegie Corporation and others led the session, “Civic Engagement: How to Make Democracy Deliver.”

During the final set of breakouts, the session “Reconsidering Community Organizing: New Players, Perspectives & Possibilities” gave funders a chance to share how funding community organizing is increasing their foundation’s impact. The panelists were Luz Vega-Marquis from The Marguerite Casey Foundation, Kelly James from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Laura Hogan from The California Endowment and Frank Sanchez from the Needmor Fund.

Discussions about diversity

Another positive development was the way discussions on diversity were woven throughout the agenda. COF historically has avoided talking about the importance of diversity and inclusiveness, so this year’s conference certainly was a step in the right direction. The quality of the sessions on diversity varied greatly—some were excellent and some were mediocre. Many attendees thought the plenary was particularly useful. Time will tell whether or not all this talk about diversity actually helps the sector make real progress.


Opening plenary

The video message from PBS NewsHour essayist Roger Rosenblatt during the opening plenary was one of the most offensive and disappointing moments of the Summit. Over and over again, the video showed people of color as helpless victims, while most of the helpers and philanthropists shown were white. Every person of color at the Summit whom I spoke with was offended by the video, and I was, too. Didn’t someone at COF work with Rosenblatt to produce the video? How did he create such a terrible portrayal of philanthropy?

In addition to the poor choices of imagery, Rosenblatt was way off the mark with the basic premise of his piece. He said, “America calls its seats of power ‘estates’—the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government constituting the first three estates. And the so-called ‘fourth estate,’ the free press, has a power of its own. Philanthropy represents what could be called the fifth estate, wielding as much power for good as the other four estates combined.”

Does he really believe that philanthropy wields as much power as the other four estates combined? Philanthropic giving is dwarfed by government spending. Most philanthropists know that because their dollars are so small in comparison to resources at the disposal of the government, they need to target their funds strategically. Rosenblatt clearly doesn’t understand the role of the philanthropic sector in our society, and COF should either have helped him produce a better essay or refused to show the one he produced. Instead, the piece was shown proudly on gigantic screens.

And the rest of the opening plenary wasn’t much better. The parade of international representatives came across as pure tokenism rather than allowing for substantive contribution. Remarks by Steven Gunderson, president and CEO of COF, predictably focused on the need to share the good news about philanthropy so that the sector can avoid further regulation. “As philanthropy grows in size, in service, and, yes, in scrutiny by others,” he said, “We must recognize that either we collectively define our work or we allow our detractors to frame us in ways that ignore this noble journey.”


The venue also was one of the worst elements of the Summit. It was held at the newly constructed Gaylord Hotel at the newly developed National Harbor Resort, just outside of Washington, D.C., in Prince George’s County, Md.

The entire National Harbor complex is completely removed from real life. No philanthropist had any risk of encountering the poverty that plagues the residents of our national capital region. This was a veritable Disneyland for foundation leaders. How are grantmakers supposed to improve the impact of their work if they keep themselves walled off from reality? At best, you could look out the ten-story glass wall and see the faint image of downtown Washington several miles in the distance across the Potomac River.

I also find it deplorable—and almost criminal—how foundations waste money at these conferences. Grassroots nonprofits know how to stretch every dollar, even when they travel. Foundations seem to flush the money down the toilet. Add up the travel costs, room charges, conference fees and fancy meals—and I don’t even want to know how much was spent for each person in attendance. I’m not suggesting that foundation leaders sleep on the couches of colleagues the way nonprofit leaders sometimes do to save money, but perhaps there is a middle ground that doesn’t look so much like gluttony as the Gaylord extravaganza did.

Minimal nonprofit attendance

As with almost all foundation conferences, there was minimal nonprofit presence. The only nonprofit leaders invited were those speaking on panels, and they generally were allowed to attend only the session they were a part of. I understand that funders don’t want to get bombarded with solicitations, but keeping grantmakers isolated from nonprofit leaders isn’t healthy for the sector.

There is real wisdom among nonprofit practitioners. Foundation leaders would benefit from more interaction with them, and the Summit would have been better if it had included nonprofit leaders from non-grantmaking organizations. COF should reassess this misguided and longstanding policy for its future conferences.


Most NCRP members who attended the COF Summit said it was, in sum, better than most other COF events they had attended in past years. There clearly were some positive elements and some real shifts in the right direction.

I began by saying that COF conferences are both a reflection of current thinking of foundation leaders and a force that shapes norms and expectations in the sector. Many NCRP members and allies therefore have decided to increase their participation in COF in order to shape the organization, its priorities, and the content of its conferences. NCRP’s strategy for improving the practice of philanthropy cannot rely heavily on COF or its gatherings, because a trade association usually will cater to the least common denominator in its membership. But it makes sense for those who share NCRP’s vision for philanthropy to engage with COF at some level and shape the discussion where we can.

Aaron Dorfman is the executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

Video footage of many sessions from the Summit is available on COF’s web site at:

  1. See
  2. Gara LaMarche is president and CEO of Atlantic Philanthropies and serves on the board of directors of NCRP.
  3. Sherece Y. West, Ph.D., is president and CEO of the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation and serves on the board of directors of NCRP.
  4. The Social Justice Philanthropy Collaborative includes Changemakers, Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, The Funding Exchange, National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, Neighborhood Funders Group and Resource Generation. More info at: