‘The Days of Quiet Philanthropy Are Behind Us’

November 26, 2013

In 2001, when Paul Grogan was named president of the Boston Foundation (the nation’s 15th largest community foundation in 2012), it was understood that the revered but diffident institution was headed for an abrupt change in profile. Grogan, a former top city official in Boston, had spent more than a decade presiding over explosive growth at the Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC), the nation’s premier community development investment organization. Throughout his career he had thrived in the spotlight and worked hard to earn a reputation as a colorful and forceful advocate. (Disclosure: Grogan and I wrote a book together, called Comeback Cities, which was published in 2000, just before he took over at the Boston Foundation.)

He was hardly the obvious choice to lead an institution that, in the words of one of its board members, had been “invisible,” “polite,” and “traditional.” He wasn’t long in the job before rumors began to circulate in the city’s political and media establishment that he would eventually run for mayor. He always denied it when asked, but otherwise did little to discourage the speculation. (He never ran.) One of his earliest acts at the Boston Foundation was to enlarge its public affairs office from one full-time employee to around ten. For those who believe community foundations ought to project a prominent, vigorous voice in public affairs, be visible in the media and in the corridors of government and vocal on the major issues of the day, Paul Grogan has been something of a poster child.

There are, of course, other points of view. Some community foundation leaders believe that they should cede center stage to their donors and grantees, and that their foundations should instead cultivate a reputation for modesty, impartiality, and quiet competence. In a new publication, Grogan takes on that point of view – as well as his own institution’s history – in arguing for an approach to civic leadership that is full-throated and unafraid of controversy.

“Changing the Game: Civic Leadership at the Boston Foundation, 2001-2012,” is a thoroughly immodest essay, in the best sense of the word. In classic Grogan style, it asserts a role for philanthropy that will arouse excitement in some boardrooms, anxiety in others, and outright irritation in a few. It chides the “narrowness and timidity” of earlier generations of community foundations and summons a will to grapple with thorny local issues, armed not only with values and expertise, but with data, passion, and a flair for communication.

“Those who still hold a narrow view of community foundations,” he writes, “must adapt. The days of quiet philanthropy are behind us.”

(The essay, published by the Center for Strategic Philanthropy and Civil Society, is part of the Duke Essays in Contemporary Philanthropy. It’s available from the Center and from the Boston Foundation.)

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