Council on Foundations Leading Together Conference: A Reflection
In April I attended the Council on Foundations’ 2017 annual conference, “Leading Together,” in Dallas, Texas. On the second night, attendees were invited to a reception at the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. The Museum rises up in a wave of sleet-colored stone at the base of an angular four-walled structure whose sides do not meet at one corner – exposing part of the interior like a book slightly cracked open. An escalator surrounded in glass mounts upward alongside the exposed corner. The building tells a story, or many stories, rather. It is a massive piece of art alongside a freeway in the bustling traveler’s hub that is Dallas. Inside are five floors of exhibit halls: dinosaur skeletons, a 3D nature film, anatomical exhibits, a robust collection of gems and minerals, aviary flight simulators, and a full children’s museum, among its many marvels.
The conference was four full days of stimulating and challenging discussion. But the Museum embodied for me the overarching spirit of, and impetus behind, the Council event. The Museum stood defiantly beside a busy freeway, its striking architecture home to a world of history, insight, contemplation, and wonder. So did the conference present a dynamic portrait of the way civil society can positively change the world, notwithstanding an often chaotic global stage. The conference focused on building vibrant communities and bridging divides. Speakers came from all over the world, across the political spectrum, and represented interests as diverse as the nonprofit sector itself. Despite anxieties around shrinking global development funding and “closing spaces,” conference attendees shared stories of collaboration and unexpected victories. The mood was one of undaunted progression. And this determination did not stem from naïveté, but rather from the learned experience of failures and successes across the sector, and from the understanding that collaboration and perseverance can and do work ... which brings me back to the Museum.
One of the Museum’s chief paleontologists was on hand to provide tours of the dinosaur wing. He described a skull found beneath the dig team’s boat, and a skeleton ossified with its last meal immortalized inside it. He shared the fascinating back stories to the small and large bones, fractured and whole, that came together to build a floor of prehistoric creatures. The hundreds of attendees of the Council conference had stories too, whether it be an Iraqi woman fighting for women’s rights, a community foundation director seeking ways to improve health outcomes in rural America, or a climate activist fighting for policy change in Europe.
At NGOsource, a project of Council on Foundations and TechSoup Global, our purpose is to build a bridge between U.S. funders and non-U.S. charities through our equivalency determination repository. Even while we work to connect funders with community projects around the world, we are not immune to the reality of continued global conflict and inequality. Events like the Council on Foundations’ conference serve to connect communities across oceans and time zones, ensuring that we succeed in uniting our stories and constructing a shared experience that rises up out of the ground like a work of art – a book cracking open – a space where differing ideas and experiences can bring us together, even amidst the most challenging of times.