August 2017


Searching philanthropy’s civic soul—together

One morning a few weeks ago, 250 of my colleagues and the Arizona Grantmakers Forum team sat in a swanky hotel ballroom in downtown San Francisco and had the wind knocked out of us.

The man who landed the blow was Robert K. Ross, M.D., president and CEO of The California Endowment and a keynote speaker at United Philanthropy Forum’s 2017 Annual Conference.

In his presentation, “A Gift-Wrapped Call to Action: How Will Philanthropy Respond?” Dr. Ross put America’s civic soul under a microscope, noting that since the 2016 election hate crimes are up and private prison stocks have soared.

Philanthropy’s role in ensuring opportunity for all, inclusion, justice and equity has never been clearer or more important, he said.

“We were in a slumber as a field,” said Ross. “Nothing wakes you up like a good punch in the face.”

Against the specter of last weekend’s deadly protests in Charlottesville, Va., and as Americans debate yet again how best to call out racism, bigotry and hatred, Dr. Ross’s call to action takes on a new sense of urgency.

Equity—and the pressing need for stepped-up civic engagement—emerged as the unifying theme of #ForumCon17, which brought together more than 60 national and regional philanthropy-serving organizations from across the country.

Ross was both blunt and eloquent as he acknowledged the risks that come with leading what the poet David Whyte calls “courageous conversations” about equity and justice among philanthropic organizations.

Then he got personal.

“You woke up this morning in this beautiful hotel,” he told the crowd. “You’re in San Francisco. You had a nice breakfast…Philanthropy…not a bad gig.”

He went on to invoke the common thread tying together each member of his ethnically diverse, and now very quiet, audience.

“Remember this when you consider taking risks: Someone in your family struggled…slavery, civil rights, war, the Holocaust, the Great Depression…someone in your past weathered a storm so that you could be here today, with the privilege to do this work,” he said. “Remember that, and make it count.”

Punch in the face? More like a blow to the gut.

In the days and weeks following Dr. Ross’s presentation, my mind has returned again and again to that moment, to that punch in the gut, what it evoked for me and how to make it count.

I thought about my grandparents, who in a story ripped from Steinbeck, headed west after the Dust Bowl laid waste to their Oklahoma farm in the 1930s. They faced down the Great Depression, opened a small grocery store in Farmington, N.M., and eventually saw their children and grandchildren graduate from college.

Every professional working in philanthropy today emanates from a family with its own unique story of risks taken and hardships overcome.

As our country grapples with fresh hurts caused by old wounds, how will our field respond to this gift-wrapped call to action? How will we honor those who made our lives—and the privilege to do this work—possible?

Fortunately, we do not have to ponder these questions alone. Last week, a small group of Arizona Grantmakers Forum members gathered to help shape programming we are developing to create safe spaces for us to search our civic souls and find our collective voice to speak up for equity and justice. We are grateful for the thoughtfulness and unique perspective each of them brings to the table.

We are grateful, too, for leaders like Dr. Ross, who reminded us in San Francisco—and again after Charlottesville—that philanthropy must heed this call to action and make it count.

“This moment is about the civic soul of our nation,” he said. “It is about who we are, what we stand for, and what we believe. Our work is civic. It is moral. It is spiritual.”


Laurie Liles
President and Chief Executive Officer