Two weeks ago I announced at the Forum’s annual conference that our organization had changed our name to United Philanthropy Forum. As you can imagine, there is a lot of thought, hard work and aspiration behind our new name.
The road to our new name started in early 2015, when the Forum’s board of directors spent seven months engaging in deep strategic discussions about the organization’s role in the philanthropy field. The board knew that a lot had changed in philanthropy and the country since the Forum was founded in 1998 as a support organization and network for regional associations of grantmakers, and that there seemed to be a lot of philanthropy infrastructure organizations out there. The board asked what role, if any, the Forum should be playing today. What was the unique contribution that the Forum could offer to advance philanthropy in our country?
Forum board members spent several months talking to leaders of our member organizations, national philanthropy affinity groups, current and past funders and other partners. We heard two things quite consistently. First, national affinity groups told us that they didn’t have a network like the Forum to support their work and connect with their peers, and that they would value such a network. I recall a CEO of a national affinity group telling me that when she started her new job a number of years ago she was on her own to figure out who to work with in the field; who her peers were. She described a somewhat lonely experience. I contrast that with the CEO of a national affinity group who told me how welcomed and connected she felt by the Forum when she started her job last year, when we had already started to reach out intentionally to all national affinity groups.
The second thing we heard, quite consistently, is that leaders of regional and national philanthropy-serving organizations (or PSOs, which is our new term for all groups that support, inform and advance philanthropy) agreed that they were not working together as effectively and efficiently as they could be, or should be, to advance philanthropy’s impact in our communities. In addition to the Forum’s 33 regional PSO members, there are about 60 national PSOs that are either issue-focused, identity-focused or practice-focused. We tapped into a feeling among many leaders of these groups that philanthropy was not moving the needle enough in their area of focus. Not coincidentally, many of these groups were also in the process of re-examining their purpose and mission. “We’re all floating in our own orbits right now,” one national PSO leader lamented to me, “and that has to change.”
So the Forum spend the next 18 months working closing with national PSOs to co-create a new type of philanthropic network that would be the place where philanthropy’s infrastructure comes together. A network that would integrate regional PSOs' deep regional roots and connections with national PSOs' deep content knowledge and reach in a more comprehensive and strategic way.
That brings us to United Philanthropy Forum, a new name that reflects both the new organization that we’ve become today and our aspirations for the future. Our new organization is working to create a more united philanthropy field, bringing together regional and national PSOs in a single network. Our new organization is helping all PSOs work together better and smarter to advance, inform and support philanthropy. Our new organization is a place to gather, discuss, interact and lead on critical issues—in other words a forum (and you can still call us the Forum!).
We’re just getting started, and we have a long way to go before we’ve made significant progress in our goal of being a truly united philanthropy field, so that philanthropy resources are used as effectively as possible to lead change and increase impact in philanthropy (and that PSOs are using their resources as effectively as possible toward that goal). But there are several signs that we’re off to a good start.
The first sign is the strong response we’ve received from national PSOs to our new network. In January 2017 the Forum opened up our membership to national PSOs for the first time, and in just the first seven months we’ve welcomed 28 new member organizations to our network—nearly doubling our membership. This has far exceeded our first-year membership goals, and tells me that we must be on to something here. To date the Forum network is comprised of 61 regional and national PSOs representing more than 7,000 foundations and other philanthropic organizations—making the Forum the largest network serving philanthropy in America.
Another good early sign is the record-breaking attendance we saw at our 2017 annual conference two weeks ago. In 2016 the Forum opened up our annual conference for the first time to the CEOs and staffs of national PSOs, and more than 40 national PSOs sent one or more people to our conference, increasing attendance more than 30% from the previous year. This year our conference attendance once again increased 30% over last year’s record-setting numbers. Again, this tells me that we must be on to something here.
Part of the reason for these big numbers is that national PSOs are hungry for the kind of professional development and education they can only get from the Forum, which is something that regional PSOs have enjoyed for many years. Among the many philanthropy conferences that are held each year, the Forum’s conference is the only one to focus on the practice and craft of running an association or network in philanthropy. So in addition to sessions on critical philanthropy issues, our 2017 conference offered sessions on communications, membership, public policy, association value and business models. But I think an even bigger reason for the strong conference attendance is that PSOs want to be part of the new Forum network experience; be part of the exciting new philanthropic network that we are all creating together, right now.
When I unveiled our new name at the Forum’s conference, I compared our new network to the image of sky divers jumping from a plane one by one but then linking their hands together to create a single formation (we’ve all seen that image). That is today’s Forum: many organizations once floating in their own orbits, but now coming together to create something connected, vibrant, new and beautiful. We’re creating the organization as we’re flying it and taking risks; falling from the sky but supporting each other to ensure a smooth landing. We’re creating a network that is ever-evolving, with many smaller networks forming within the larger network.
I look forward to continuing to work with all of our current and new regional and national PSO members, and our philanthropy partners and supporters in the field, to write the next exciting chapter for United Philanthropy Forum. If we remain committed to working together in new and authentic ways, we can accomplish great things.
President & CEO, United Philanthropy Forum
Follow me @dbiemesderfer