In honor of our association’s 20th anniversary and the passionate leaders who have helped us grow along the way, we are pleased to launch a regular blog series dedicated to the reflections of our founders, early board members, and others with long careers in philanthropy. What has changed in the field—and in their giving—over the past decades? What has remained the same? Join us at the 2016 National Conference, September 26-28 in Chicago, to celebrate our milestone anniversary >>
By Marty Fluharty, The Americana Foundation
Last week a speaker was talking about today’s lost communications. We’re turning to text messages, email, ear buds and head phones, in our homes, and in our separate cars. There are fewer community spaces as society encourages us to “do it ourselves.”
Memories came back to a past time some 30+ years ago when there were lots of group discussions, convenings, “rump sessions” with colleagues and friends, porch get-togethers with neighbors sometimes just to talk and other times to celebrate or address concerns. The speaker was correct: We’ve lost a lot of that.
In 1992, I was asked by a colleague to help The Americana Foundation learn about an issue being discussed in our state (Michigan). I met with the board and suggested that they gather with some of the diverse stakeholders and hear their perspectives of the issue. Three intense days later, we all walked away with a list of recommendations and implementation agreements. It was a powerful lesson in what 27 people with very diverse opinions and beliefs can do when they work together.
We tend to call it collaboration, a word with many descriptions: cooperation, mutual support, shared work and goals, to work jointly, to communicate openly. Okay, you get the point. The thing is, you can’t do it alone.
That year brought me into a new job as executive director of The Americana Foundation—a job that required different skills and knowledge. My first day in the office I determined that operations were managed using an old computer, a dot matrix printer, 12 empty filing drawers, and a RAFS (random access filing system) with piles of paper on every surface. I called for help from people working in other foundations and at a Council on Foundations conference; what a joy! I wasn’t alone. There was willing help and the beginnings of Exponent Philanthropy.
The small group of us at the COF meeting shared challenges, answered one another’s questions, and realized the joy of collaboration with individuals, advisors, and different types of foundations, some with large assets and some with small.
The past silos of individual foundations focused on their own missions and operations have grown into forces targeting multiple challenges at the local, regional, and global levels. We come together in large and small groups, support the convening of our grantees, and find ways to work jointly to tackle the issues and challenges of today’s and tomorrow’s world. We’ve found that collaboration, cooperation, and learning together expands philanthropy’s impact.
Michigan’s foundations are diverse (in assets, programs, and staff size), and we all meet periodically to learn about one another’s grant programs and operations and the state’s big issues. We can refer potential grantees to one another. Although Americana is small in assets and in staff (1.5), I can sometimes fund a $5,000 grant much easier than a foundation with a large program staff. Getting together and learning together has helped the foundation community and our grantees. Out of one of these meetings came the commitment that foundations must take the lead in Detroit’s rebirth, and we have.
Exponent Philanthropy continues to have at its core the various definitions of collaboration: learning together, expanding our understanding of many issues, finding new ways to do our work within and outside of our organizations, and developing new partnerships and friendships so we and our grantees can reach our goals.
Americana Foundation has been a member since the beginning because philanthropy keeps changing, as do the issues, and we know we’ll be more successful together.
I don’t have to do it alone.
Hear from Marty about a time her foundation leveraged a small grant to jump-start a huge project constructing a nonmotorized trail in Northwest Michigan:
Marty Fluharty, an Exponent Philanthropy founding member and former board chair, is executive director of The Americana Foundation in Novi, Michigan, which supports educational and advocacy programs that address the preservation of American agriculture, the conservation of natural resources, and the protection and presentation of expressions of America’s heritage.