Monday, February 23, 2009

Emerging Leaders Salon Takes Off

EPIP-DC kicked off the return of its Emerging Leaders Salon with a conversation with Virginia Esposito, Founder and President of the National Center for Family Philanthropy. February's well-attended discussion had participants talking about careers in philanthropy, the world of family giving, and the economy.

Esposito began the discussion with some of DC's emerging leaders by telling the story of her own 29-year career in the field. She had started out as a schoolteacher before arriving, partly by chance, at the Council on Foundations. It was there that she discovered a fascination with the contributions of philanthropic families.

"All I hear about is how family detracts [from giving]," Esposito said, relating the story of one philanthropy professional who wanted to work for "families - but families without issues."

"That's just sad because, 'issues' and all, family adds so much to the process," she said. "Giving families embody the central democratic principle of personal initiative for the public good. Their work is as much an act of citizenship as their industry, their vote, and their taxes."

That passion for family philanthropy encouraged Esposito, along with other leaders in family giving, to create the Council's Program on Family Philanthropy and, in 1997, the independent National Center for Family Philanthropy.

She spoke of the roots and traditions, the values that transcend generations, that families bring to their philanthropy, and called attention to the commitment, passion, and responsiveness that families' giving reveals.

"We haven't done a good job of increasing understanding about what it is that foundations and, more specifically, family foundations do," she argued, pointing to NCFP's recent initiative to combat public misperceptions by articulating the "value of family philanthropy."

She encouraged emerging leaders to follow their own passions and to be open to new opportunities and the chance to do something different.

"When I first started out, we didn't even use the phrase 'family foundation,'" Esposito said. "Now there's the National Center, and family giving has its own department at the Council and at community foundations and organizations around the world."

Esposito also acknowledged a debt to her many mentors, among them foundation trustee, educator and former dean of the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University Paul Ylvisaker.

"I think any career in philanthropy takes passion, commitment, and a willingness to take the long view," she said. "But it also takes a group of mentors that inspire, teach, and encourage. I am the product of so many people who took the time to teach me – to invest in my knowledge and, consequently, my career. They daily play some part in who I am and what I do and I remember each one with enormous respect and gratitude."

The conversation then turned to the topic of philanthropy and the economy as giving families struggle to keep up with rising needs amid declining assets and the added tragedy of the Madoff scandal.

"Foundation assets are down as much as 30 to 40 percent over the last year," Esposito said.

She noted that families were getting creative to meet growing needs: renegotiating grant agreements, convening nonprofit groups, collaborating, giving access to professional and technical assistance, and offering lines of credit and no-interest loans.

Esposito contended that the crisis was an opportunity for reflection, for foundations to ask themselves: "What are we really doing here?"

"You don't have to give up your dream of perpetuity to step up," she said. "It's gotten to the point that we boast of our investment returns as much as we boast of impact. Payout should be a function of what you're trying to do - not what you're trying to make."

She encouraged grantmakers to see how they might help both with grants and beyond grants.

Of particular concern to some members was the loss of some well-known social justice grantmakers.

"We're losing foundations that were willing to go into places and be advocates that others weren't, like the JEHT Foundation," Esposito acknowledged. "It's a real loss."

"There seems to be a new awareness that government isn't taking care of the vulnerable," Esposito said, pointing to the aftermath of Katrina and the more recent housing and credit crises. "Social justice may be at the forefront of people's minds in a new way."

"I was concerned about speaking to the 'Emerging Practitioners' because I feared it implied I better have already emerged or, at my age, had little chance of doing so!" Esposito explained. "What I realized is that EPIP-DC is an impressive group of leaders – nothing 'emerging' about them. The great delight I took in spending time with them was enhanced by the opportunity to pay tribute to my own leader-mentors."

Special thanks to Ginny Esposito and the National Center for Family Philanthropy for hosting this event.

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