Grits Ain’t Groceries. They’re Hope.


Philanthropy411, is currently covering the Council on Foundations conference with the help of a blog team.  This is a guest post by Vincent Robinson, Managing Partner of The 360 Group.

by Vincent Robinson

These days, I’m spending a lot of time thinking about the future of the social sector. I don’t mean to gloss over the past, certainly, but as our society continues to evolve and change, it’s hard not to be focused on what’s to come. This led me to hang around the Career Pathways program at the Council on Foundations.

From what I could tell, the 15 Pathways participants arrived on Thursday, well in advance of the conference. On Friday, they had mock interviews with executive search consultants (including yours truly) for a CEO role at a foundation that they themselves devised. My experience in interviewing the two participants was really terrific – they are so passionate, but also so smart, and so action-oriented. This was nice for me to see. We all want change, but how we go about it varies, and by dumb luck I got to interview two outstanding individuals who not only care, who not only want to make things happen, who not also have the chops to do it, but take time to think about themselves as leaders – their values, their relationships with others, and their own roles in service to others. I was inspired…

And then, I went to the Career Pathways “graduation” on Sunday morning. I was incredibly moved. Steve Gunderson, CEO of the Council on Foundations, talked about the issues facing leaders: globalization, community cohesion, government cuts, the role of corporations in social responsibility, new structures in philanthropy, and, of course diversity. He also announced that Renee Branch is now the Vice President for Professional Development, Diversity and Inclusion at the Council (congratulations, Renee… another great placement by The 360 Group!). Carol Larson from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation followed by connecting those issues to a career. What are the keys to a successful career? Taking risks and never stopping. Keep learning. Ask for help. Find yourself in a “cohort” with “positional partners” (which I read as “get some friends with whom you can exchange real feedback”). In a foundation context, that can be hard, but look for opportunities. Personally, I don’t see it as hard at all – foundation professionals are surrounded by resources that connect them to even more resources. Use them! I’d actually never heard Carol give a speech.  I’d only met for the first time that morning, but it was one of the warmest, most forthright talks I’ve ever heard. I was inspired again, not least because she acknowledged the role that people in her position can and should play – identify up-and-comers and give them big stuff to do! (Aside: in “Leadership for the 21st Century” on Tuesday morning, I heard my co-panelist Julie Rogers from the Meyer Foundation make the same point. These women are rocking philanthropy!)

But, no, that’s not enough inspiration for one day, is it? Speaking of women who rock, the commencement speaker from the Pathways class was Latonya Slack from The James Irvine Foundation. Wow. Before I get to the fun part, her characterization of the class was quite striking. It’s filled with people who have a variety of attributes — quiet determination; keen self-awareness; powerhouses of fire; able to leap complex concepts in a single bound; honest, forthright, funny; wise beyond one’s years; knowledgeable and in charge. Really? If this is the future of philanthropy, sign me up! The zinger, though, was her deft return to her southern roots and using grits (yes, northerners, grits) as a metaphor for the class. Grits are, I gather, because I too am a northerner (though I once had shrimp and grits at Crook’s Corner in Chapel Hill), are hearty and versatile. But they work best when together. Have you ever had one “grit”? They are solid, fundamental. They are “gritty” like sand, and tough like Dirty Harry. That’s her Career Pathways class. Yup. That’s all of us! Latonya noted that she prefers her grits savory rather than sweet. I’m more partial to oatmeal (which I likewise prefer savory), but after this talk, I’m not only more excited about the future of philanthropy, but I’ve pledged to eat more grits.

As I was leaving the conference, I ran into one of the Pathways participants. She asked me if I’d learned anything new at the conference. I said no… but that I’d met a whole raft of new people — and watching all that we all do and experience every day – the big wins and the “tremendous trifles”– is what keeps me inspired and really, really hopeful for the future of this field, our society and our world. Really.

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Posted by Kris Putnam-Walkerly © Kris Putnam-Walkerly and Philanthropy411, 2010.

Kris is a sought after philanthropy advisor, expert and award-winning author. She has helped over 90 foundations and philanthropists strategically allocate and assess over half a billion dollars in grants and gifts.

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