By Andy Carroll, Exponent Philanthropy
What would it look like for a family foundation to convene citizens of an entire county to develop a vision for the future?
This is what Exponent Philanthropy member The Dresher Foundation did in November at Connect Harford, in partnership with Maryland’s Harford Community College. I attended the event to witness this striking example of leadership by a small-staffed foundation. The Dresher Foundation has about $50 million in assets and employs one staff person.
The Dresher family has deep roots in Maryland’s Harford County, a semirural county north of Baltimore, and devotes most of its philanthropy there. Like other longtime residents, the board and family have watched the county’s rural character wane, as a result of its proximity to Baltimore and other employment centers.
Residents want Harford County to build its own employment centers, and education pathways that nurture business and enterprise. They want Harford to become a community where residents work, study, live, and play. And they want young people to have local opportunities, which will encourage them to stay.
The Dresher Foundation began talking with Harford Community College about a model for community conversation used successfully in nearby Delaware. The idea was to get all community sectors—business, government, education, military, and nonprofit—in one room to brainstorm about the future. To attract the broad representation they wanted, including staff from the local military base, the foundation and college invited a high-profile speaker, Admiral Mike Mullen, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to be the keynote.
A year of planning and marketing paid off: 350 people attended, representing all sectors and including 15 elected leaders—state senators and delegates, town mayors, and the county executive. Foundation trustee Jim Dresher emphasized breaking down silos and building connections across the county. Keynote Admiral Mullen urged leaders to push beyond their usual information sources to seek out diverse and dissenting views, to get a more complete picture of a world that is complex and changing.
Most of the convening was devoted to a series of small group discussions, where citizens explored ideas for building a diverse economy and developing the county’s education resources. Participants were also asked to articulate the county’s identity, positive values, and possible brand. Each table had a facilitator/recorder to capture key ideas, and share themes with the entire assembly. People were engaged, conversations flowed, and the huge room hummed with ideas and possibilities.
The Dresher Foundation invested $100,000 in Connect Harford, and Harford Community College donated thousands more in staff time and event space. Though the costs were considerable, the potential benefits to the county could count in the millions, in terms of better coordination across agencies and sectors, more efficiency, and, most powerfully, in the potential to create a unified vision for developing the county’s people and economy, and preserving its unique assets.
In having the vision to convene its county, and creating conditions for collaboration and creativity, the Dresher Foundation demonstrates how small-staff foundations offer leadership to their communities.
- The Power of Convening, an article by Exponent Philanthropy
- Exponent Philanthropy’s resources on philanthropic leadership
- Twenty Ways to Make a Difference, a primer from Exponent Philanthropy
Senior Program Director Andy Carroll writes resources, designs workshops, and facilitates seminars for funders. Andy also dedicates a significant portion of his time to managing our Leadership Initiative that defines, validates, nurtures, and celebrates the many ways philanthropists lead. Andy has 25 years of experience in nonprofit organizations, and he enjoys talking with funders about their questions, interests, passions, and plans for making a difference.