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USC forum sets strategies to increase philanthropy’s impact

From left, philanthropists Tom Steyer and Kat Taylor with Joseph Drown Foundation President Wendy Wachtell at The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy's forum on philanthropy (Photo/Steve Cohn)

More than 220 philanthropic leaders from across the nation came together in Los Angeles to consider how philanthropy can have the greatest impact in addressing enduring public problems.

Hosted by The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy at the USC Price School of Public Policy, the fifth Philanthropic Leadership Forum engaged donors and foundation executives, philanthropic thought leaders, academic researchers and others in a series of sessions that explored the arc of philanthropy from imagination to innovation to impact.

“At this critical moment, our collective ability to achieve broad and lasting impact may be more essential than ever before,” said USC Price Professor James Ferris, director of the center. “The forum provides the opportunity for philanthropic leaders in the sector to discuss ideas, challenge assumptions and examine new strategies in the quest for greater impact.”

The forum’s opening plenary featured Tom Steyer, founder of Farallon Capital Management, LLC, and Kat Taylor, CEO and co-chair of the board of directors of One PacificCoast Bank. Moderated by Wendy Wachtell, president of the Joseph Drown Foundation and a member of the center’s board of advisers, the session established a framework to discuss the imagination and innovation of their philanthropy as they act to fulfill their “Giving Pledge.”

“I desperately want the stuff we do to be real world, to have impact. I want to have dirt under our fingernails,” Steyer said. “If you can have impact in the real world, to me that’s the payoff, that is the thing that makes me feel like were accomplishing something.”

Steyer and Taylor added detail to the vision of their philanthropy in a follow-up session moderated by University Professor Geoffrey Cowan, president of The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands, in which they were joined by Jim Steyer, founder of Children Now and CEO of Common Sense Media, and Matt James, CEO of The Center for the Next Generation.

The quartet discussed its imaginative approaches to philanthropy, which ranged from the creation of a bank owned and funded by the foundation that is taking on payday lenders to the backing of political campaigns that shape environmental and energy policy, and the creation of organizations that leverage communications to tackle climate change and childhood poverty, among other issues.

“If you want to accomplish the kind of massive change we want to do around climate change and energy issues and now this Too Small to Fail Campaign around kids, its going to be largely driven by media,” Jim Steyer said. “I think of it as a media organization because we’re going to educate the public about those issues.”

Other sessions held at the forum explored the innovations occurring in philanthropy and across sectors to create social change, including impact investing, developments in the use of social media and games, and the expanded use of collaborations and networking.

Panelists in the session on impact investing shared their thoughts on a relatively new strategy in which philanthropists, private business, nonprofit providers and government come together to leverage capital markets through social impact bonds and other financial instruments to achieve social good.

“The whole essence of impact investing is to be able to take the risks where the markets would not necessarily do so in order to catalyze positive development on behalf of underserved populations,” said Paula Goldman, director of the Omidyar Network.

In the standing-room-only session on social media and games, participants explored the benefits and challenges of philanthropy using emerging strategies for communicating with key audiences and making an impact at the individual, programmatic, organizational and societal levels.

“Games sit in an ecosystem with lots of other media so it’s really about making the right choices,” said Constance Steinkuehler, associate professor at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. “But one thing that games buy you that no other media can buy you is that you are able to give someone a firsthand experience.”

“When we are talking about social media, we are talking about building, strengthening and creating connections, and when those connections happen, we don’t know what’s going to happen, life happens, it’s messy,” added Allison Fine, senior fellow of the Democracy Team at Demos, a national organization based in New York City.

Forum participants also took part in sessions that considered steps that philanthropy could take to strengthen nonprofit leadership, improve how it learns about itself and its grantees through evaluation, and strategies for philanthropy to diffuse and scale programs and practices that can create greater impact.

“I love the name of this session, evaluating and learning for greater impact,” said Lisbeth Schorr, senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Social Policy. “You are not asking for better evaluation and learning just to minimize risk or to show off fancy metrics, you’re actually interested in evaluation and learning for greater impact.”

The role of philanthropic leadership in the quest for greater philanthropic impact was also highlighted in a plenary session that brought together noted foundation board trustees to share their perspective from the boardroom on the leadership opportunities and challenges for philanthropy.

“Board members need to understand the needs of the populations [they’re] serving,” said Monica Lozano, CEO of ImpreMedia and a trustee of the Weingart Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. “Bringing that perspective to the table helps you to make much better decisions. One of the things that we can do is take what we learn and understand how we can impact systematically the nonprofit system so that it can be more resilient, so that it has more capacity, so it is able to sustain itself over the long term.”

Irene Hirano Inouye, president of the U.S.-Japan Council, who serves as chair of the Ford Foundation’s board of trustees and is a board member of both The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy and the Kresge Foundation, shared her thoughts about foundations and risk-taking.

“We told senior executives [at one foundation] that it’s important that you feel comfortable taking some risk in the portfolio of things you’re funding. And, that not every grant is going to be perfect or turn out the way that you hoped it would, but that’s OK if you can learn from it.”

The forum came to a close in a final plenary session that focused on imagining the power of philanthropy and its potential for making a difference in Southern California.

During the session, panelists Ken Brecher, president of the Library Foundation of Los Angeles, Kafi Blumenfield, president and CEO of the Liberty Hill Foundation, Samuel Hoi, president of the Otis College of Art and Design, and Lisa Stevens, president of the West Coast region of Wells Fargo, spoke about their ideas on what philanthropic impact could be and challenged the audience to imagine, innovate and work together to solve community problems.

“I’m excited by the efforts I’m seeing at LA foundations to help our grantees build new alliances with government, with philanthropy, academia and beyond to increase the potency of their campaign beyond dollars,” Blumenfield said. “In creating these alliances, I’m hopeful that philanthropy will not only be able to better address the socioeconomic ailments of our city, Los Angeles, but by these efforts, I think we can actually strengthen the fabric of democracy itself by creating new spaces for healthy discussion and debate, move beyond party politics and foster conversations that really underscore that we are all in this together.”

Hoi added: “Philanthropic leaders need to positively challenge their boards and staff to investigate and support and to champion new and innovative convergence practices. If philanthropy does not lead this effort, who can and who will?”

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