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Best Conference EVER!: #ForumCon18

Friday, July 27, 2018

This is a guest post by Michael Hamill Remaley, Senior Vice President, Public Policy & Communications at Philanthropy New York. It originally appeared on Philanthropy New York.

You may have read the construction of the headline above to mean that I think that this year’s United Philanthropy Forum annual conference was its best to date.  No.  I mean that this year’s Forum gathering may be the best conference I have ever attended – and I say that as a person who has been working in philanthropy for more than 25 years, so I have attended a lot of conferences!

Here are a few reasons why it was the best:

Extraordinarily Effective Focus on Racial Equity. A lot of organizations are talking about racial equity these days and looking for ways to add it to their agenda. This conference truly centered race in a way that needs to happen with more convening organizations.  There were spectacularly inspiring and deeply challenging keynote and plenary speakers who made us think in new ways and forced us to question why we do what we do.  In session after session, there were many practical discussions on how to apply a racial equity lens to just about every aspect of our work.  This conference made deep thought on race essential to participation in the community, not a single session or speaker that you could skip or tune out. They did it with creativity and inspiration, including amazing speakers I’ve never encountered before, like artist Titus Kaphar, author Elizabeth Hinton, author Ibram X. Kendi and violinist and composer Shaw Pong Lui. They also called many of us on the carpet with speakers they knew would challenge us to do better, like Michael McAfee, Christina Jimenez, Grant Oliphant and Sara Eagle Heart.

Exceptional Policy Ideas.  This year, with PolicyWorks coinciding with Foundations on the Hill instead of the Forum’s annual conference, there was a chance that the convening would have less to offer those of us who are passionate about the ways in which philanthropy can support and engage in policy, advocacy and government relations. But there was still plenty for people like me to dig my teeth into, including a 2.5 hour session with my policy peers in which I heard about important new initiatives taking place in other cities that I hope we can also advance here in New York.  But it wasn’t just the policy peer community where I heard new ideas on policy. I was awed by the talk given by “The Color of Law” author Richard Rothstein about the government policies that actively segregated our communities – which continue their pernicious effect, but which have real policy solutions that Rothstein proposes in the final chapter of his book (which we received gratis at the conference and I am proud to say I read later on the beach in Provincetown). From my policy peers, the most fascinating news I heard was that Connecticut passed legislation this Spring (S.B. 256) concerning racial and ethnic impact statements, which would allow any legislator to request an assessment, called a racial and ethnic impact statement, of any bill's potential impact on people of color (similar to what many states do on budget implications for any given piece of legislation). According to the ACLU of Connecticut, “Done right, these racial and ethnic impact statements can prevent legislators from being able to feign ignorance if they pass a bill that hurts people of color and provide people with tools to make sure the legislature is serving everyone.”  Our Regional Association sister organization in Illinois is now pursuing similar legislation, and my colleagues here at PNY expressed great interest in the idea. 

Varied, Well-Paced Programming.  As one of the people responsible for presenting PNY’s annual meeting, I understand the impulse to structure each convening in a way similar to what has been successful in the past. The Forum keeps trying new learning formats and structures. I know I shouldn’t care so much, but I am in love with the many half-hour breaks the Forum placed between substantially long convening sessions. Additionally, I enjoy a good panel, but I also got so much out of the “mid-level practitioners” session I attended in which we essentially engaged in group therapy among people who are senior managers but not CEOs – including a “critical friends” exercise in which we basically helped a person workshop an intra-office challenge, which we all could sympathize with and learn from. Hearing other people’s challenges was an interesting mix of feeling universal commonality with my peers, but also a reminder of how good I have it here at PNY.  

The Most Generous People I Know. This statement is no shade to the wonderful members of Philanthropy New York with whom we interact on a daily basis. But when you gather people who work for Philanthropy Serving Organizations (PSOs) from all over (even a few from outside the U.S.), you realize that people who chose to work in service to foundations have a very particular outlook on life and a special disposition. While there are a variety of personalities, we are all helpers. We spend our careers trying to make “doing good” better, we are dedicated to the learning of others, and we possess a sense of optimism about what the world can be when we work together. Put 300+ of these people in a beautiful city like Boston and give them a few days to brainstorm and you are guaranteed to come away feeling inspired. Conferences are, at core, networking opportunities among similarly situated individuals, and this conference brought together the most kind, smart, dedicated people that I have ever experienced. 

If you are reading this as a funder and feeling left out, and wondering, “Why is he writing about a conference that is not for me?”  Au contraire, mon frère! This year’s conference had special programming for PSO board members – so there were also a good number foundation leaders present.  I hope that this experiment takes off in future years, as I would love to see more foundation leaders experience the inspiring, challenging and joyous learning community the Forum is nurturing. 

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