Camp Outright

Better Together: President Stuart Comstock-Gay's Full Speech at the Vermont Community Foundation's 2013 Annual Meeting

Good afternoon. Once again, it’s wonderful to see so many friends here. I love this event. The work we all do, whether we’re philanthropists, nonprofit staff, community leaders, volunteers…or more likely some combination—the work we do is rewarding, important, exciting—but can also be challenging. So it’s good to get together every now and then to say to each other—“nice job, keep it up, and thanks.” It’s nice to network and plot new ideas, and to inspire each other.  So I love this event for all of those reasons. And I do say to all of you. Nice job. Keep it up. Thank you. I should also add a note of thanks to Dave Donath and the folks at Billings Farm for their hospitality. Thank you also for your flexibility in helping us move this event.  

Better Together. It’s a phrase I cannot get out of my head. Better Together. It’s the title of a book by my old colleague Lew Feldstein and Bob Putnam from Harvard—about American communities, and about social capital. And the honest truth is, it has become like an ear-worm for me. It has become my answer to almost every question. Better Together. I’m going to come back to this notion. But let me talk about a few other things first.  

We at the community foundation are fortunate that we get to spend our days working with people who are generous to help them give in ways that are meaningful. We get to work with nonprofits and community groups to help them achieve their goals. And we get to work around issues that matter.  

We learn from our partner philanthropists—fund-holders at the foundation, and folks doing their philanthropy outside of the foundation. We learn from nonprofits about things that work and things we could do better. And we think a lot about what works and what doesn’t in philanthropy, about what we do well, what we don’t do well, where we need to get better.   

Today, I thought I’d share with you some of the things that are on my mind…some of the questions before us. I’m going to touch very briefly on what I see as some of the key challenges before us. I should say that I don’t pretend to know all of the answers. But what I do know is that the questions need to be addressed.   I’m going to talk about

  • Technology and social media
  • The evolving social compact
  • Endowments
  • Strategic Grantmaking
  • And then I'll return to community.
I start with technology, and the power of social media. Many of you, I’m sure, saw the short video about Kony. You know that story…the campaign Invisible Children released a video in March of 2012, seeking to bring attention to the atrocious crimes of the war-lord/religious leader Kony from Uganda. Once released, the video went big. A Pew study found that within the first week of the video’s release, 40% of Americans aged 18-29 had heard of it. By the end of the year, the video had been seen over 100 million times, the Central African Union had sent troops to find Kony, and the U.S. Senate had passed a resolution of denunciation. Only later did we learn that the video was not all it seemed to be, that the story was more complicated. Not quite a hoax, but clearly a muddy story. But in that six months, millions of people were moved to act.  

Elsewhere, and closer to home, there’s the bullied bus lady story. Many of you will have seen that awful video of an elderly woman—a school bus monitor in Upstate New York—being harassed by out-of-control kids. The website indigogo set up a fundraising page for her—“Karen deserves a vacation,” seeking $5,000. After that one month campaign closed, the campaign had raised over $700,000. Karen took her vacation, retired as a bus monitor, and set up a $100,000 anti-bullying foundation.   How do we even think about that? How do we process those stories—when many of the core organizations—providing food, shelter, education and training—struggle to meet their budgets? To pay their caseworkers? How do we think about that when many of us, many of you, work mightily to do good work and tell your stories, who deliver first-rate service, but still have a hard time meeting payroll? I don’t have an answer. But what I know is that the best organizations are going to need to adjust to the demands of technology, to integrate it into our work. And I know there are folks like David Wood Lewis from Front Porch Forum who are using that technology in important new community-minded ways.  

Second, I’ve been thinking about the evolving social compact in this country. By that I mean—what is it we as a citizenry agree to provide for each other, and what is our relationship to one another. What is the changing relationship between philanthropy, nonprofits, business, and the government. What we all know and see is that it’s changing. What do we want Government to provide? What is the role of nonprofits? What is the role of businesses? And how do we pay for those things?  There are many aspects to the question. And I could go on for some time on this topic…for days. But for my purposes right now, it goes to the seemingly never-ending discussion about capping charitable tax deductions. There were $300 billion dollars of contributions made in this country in 2011. By one estimate, if the charitable tax deduction were eliminated at the federal level, the total contributions that year would have been cut by $15 billion dollars. Now, no responsible proposal has put forth a change that extreme, but what is clear is that a cap would reduce deductions—in some fashion.  At a time when nonprofits are being asked to do more and more, and when resources are stretched even further, that doesn’t seem like a great idea. It’s a critical issue, and we are working with it, as are others—Lauren Glen Davitian at CommonGoodVT, John Killacky at the Flynn, Scott Johnson at Lamoille Family Center—and others.  

Third, I’m hearing a lot of discussion about endowments—pro and con. Are they a good idea, or a bad idea? Endowments vs. spending now. It’s an issue with some real heat these days. It’s an issue that has had heat for decades. There was a long-serving Texas Congressman named Wright Patman who, in his 47 years in office never stopped railing against the proliferation of philanthropic foundations—as evidence not of increased American generosity but rather of growing fiscal abuse.  On this one, I don’t really see so much of a debate as I see great examples on both side of the ledger. For instance, in 1889, industrialist Franklin Fairbanks opened the doors to the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury. The original endowment is long gone, but today, the Fairbanks provides science education throughout the region—in schools, in the fields, and on VPR. I’m sure Mr. Fairbanks had grand visions way back then. But it’s hard to believe he could have imagined how many thousands of young people have been inspired by his legacy. If not for his foresight, none of that would have happened.            

On the flipside is Julius Rosenwald, the man who built Sears, who was long in disagreement with many of his fellow philanthropists in the early 20th century. And many of you will never have heard of him. Because, he put all of his money to work in his lifetime. He made the commitment to build schools for African-American children throughout the South. The impact he had was enormous.            

Both models matter. Both models work.  

Fourth, Strategic Grantmaking vs. community-based grantmaking. It’s one of the hottest discussions in philanthropy these days. The debate is framed as grantmaking that strategically focuses funding only on scientifically proven models, vs. funding that relies on the perspectives of communities and their perceptions of their needs. There are some barn-burner debates out there. But once again, what I see is the need for balance. Look locally…

On one end, think about Rick Davis, who most of you know. Rick—who through his leadership of the Permanent Fund—is indefatigable in his efforts to ensure that every child grows up with the greatest chance of success. He has made sure we’ve all seen the overwhelming data about brain development from ages zero to three…and shown us what can be done. More important, he has led an ever growing coalition to support early education, to educate policymakers, and to urge better practices and funding.            

On the other, I can describe scores of smaller and one-time grants that changed communities—like the $2,000 grant we made for the Open Door Clinic in Middlebury, for their mobile health and flu clinics, or the small grant to help the town of Johnson with their bandstand, or the small grant to the town of Wilmington for their town volunteer day on the second anniversary of Irene.            

Both models work.  

 In all of these issues, we at the foundation listen and learn, and try things out…and try again. But what I really want to say is, whatever the question, whatever the issue, what I also know is that the answers are buried in the notion I started with…Better Together.                        

Community foundations will be 100 years old in 2014.  Philanthropy itself—in the form we know it today, is not much older. Over all that time, much has been written about what works and what doesn’t, about who screwed up, and who did it right.   But for our work, in the end, in this place, our real impact is in

  • A deep grounding in people
  • A connection to humankind    
  • And in meaning   
Because whether you endow your fund or spend it, whether you launch a viral video or don’t, whether you engage in strategic or community-based grantmaking, or both, without people you don’t have impact.  

There was an article in the Atlantic magazine a couple of years ago, about young people—in their twenties, and where their lives are going. A psycho-therapist was discussing her clients—young adults in their twenties. She expected, she said, people with drug problems, incomplete education, abusive backgrounds, broken families. What she got instead was a seeming never ending stream of young people with loving families, great educations, good jobs…and a deep sense of being lost and without purpose.               

Data from the Pew Center shows us that trust for government institutions—Congress, the Presidency, and the Supreme Court—is at all-time lows. Trust in business is low. Participation in churches is lower than ever. Confidence in the news-media is low.  If you read much about social capital, you know the story—at a national level, we don’t trust as much as we did in the past, and we just aren’t as connected. We don’t have dinner with our neighbors, we don’t go to town meeting, we don’t vote, we commute too much and have little time for volunteering.  Okay, you say, but in Vermont we’re different. Well…yes, we’re above average, but even here, the numbers aren’t what they once were.            

More importantly, that literature will tell you that American civic engagement peaked in the generation that came out of World War II. My parents’ generation. And each decadal group after that has been less involved…less giving, less volunteering, voting less, etc. Not a pretty picture…            

 But. But we also see that there’s a rebirth of commitment among the people coming of age now—the Millenials. We see people—in their twenties and younger—young people are starting seriously to look for re-engagement. Volunteering at greater numbers.  We see young people, middle-aged, and old…still want that connection and that meaning.  And that’s what philanthropy is at its best. Connection. Meaning.             

Better together.              

So where do we turn?  Where do we find the people and institutions to trust? How do we rebuild the sense of community that allows us to thrive?              

I’ll start here. Without too much boosterism, we haven’t lost all of that in Vermont. The reality of Vermont life is that most of us wouldn’t trade it for most anywhere we’ve ever lived. There’s nowhere I’ve lived where commitment to each other is stronger.   

Think about the reaction we all saw after Irene. At the end of August, I attended the 2nd Anniversary event for Irene—in Rochester. And the FEMA people—two years after the event—are still talking about the unbelievable reaction of Vermonters after the storm. They’re telling folks from across the country to talk to us…and learn from us. “Learn from Vermont,” they say. “They did it right.”               

We still in this state have that grounding in people—that connection—that humanity. It’s not perfect, but we have something to build on.            

I mentioned the Kony video. There’s another great video—this one in the form of a movie called Crash Reel. It’s the story of Vermonter Kevin Pearce. Most of you know his story—he was one of the best snowboarders in the world until he suffered a Traumatic Brain Injury in an awful accident. This summer, with the release of the movie on HBO, Kevin and his family established a fund at the Community Foundation, to help young people suffering from TBI. We’re thrilled about the project, and the Pearce Family commitment. But if you watch the movie—and I urge you to do so—you’ll see that the story is at core about people—about family and friends and their commitment to one another. And if you were lucky enough to be at the premiere of the film over at the Hopkins Center—like I was—you would see that the Kevin Pearce story really is about a grounding in people and connection in community.              Better Together.              

When an eager and energetic young woman rode her bicycle up my driveway this summer at dusk, and optimistically explained her cause and why it mattered, it was not so much about her issue as it was about the connection. I made the connection—and the contribution.            

Better Together.              

When the McClure Foundation started targeting their work toward non-traditional students seeking success in post-secondary education, they didn’t do it alone. They have partnered with other funders; they have sat with and listened to educators as they explain their needs. They have talked with students about what works. They have done their work in partnership, with a deep and abiding belief in community and in people.            

Better Together.              

When Louise Sjobeck made her commitment to the Chandler, it was born of a belief in community, and a knowledge of the people in that community.

  • People
  • Love of Humanity         
  • Meaning   
So where do we start? 


Our work at the community foundation is quite simply that. The root of the word philanthropy—as most of you know—is love of humankind. One of the earliest writers about philanthropy—the founder of Johns Hopkins University—said, “Charity is for the poor, philanthropy is for humankind.”            

And that’s our work. We are inspired every day by the donors, the community leaders, the dogged nonprofit staffers. We believe in community. We believe in people. We believe things can be better.            

We believe that we are all better together.            

Thank you.