Philanthropy's Role in Bridging Divides through Civil Discourse and Shared Dialogue

Vikki Spruill's Opening Remarks at the 2017 Annual Conference


Thank you Sherry for that introduction. Sherry is our outgoing Board Chair and has done a remarkable job during her tenure with the Council’s Board. She recently wrote a moving piece that you may have seen on what the Council means to her, and how the Council is and I quote, “the one entity that binds us together across a broad and diverse country and that allows us to speak to Congress and the public with one voice.” Our Board has been so fortunate to have such a passionate and vocal supporter of the Council’s work, and I’d like to publicly thank Sherry for her steadfast commitment to philanthropy, to the Council, and to me.

I’m also pleased to introduce you to Javier Soto, President and CEO of The Miami Foundation and our incoming board chair. Javier has served on the Council’s Board for five years and has already proven himself to be a wise, committed, and passionate voice for the sector. You’ll be seeing Javier throughout the day, but I’d also like to publicly thank him this morning and tell him how excited I am about the year ahead.

Thank you both so very much!   

I’d now like to take a moment to recognize and thank Dan Cardinali, President and CEO of Independent Sector. Having Dan here on behalf of his members embodies the principle of leading together. The charitable sector’s voice is truly stronger when we’re united in tackling big change.

And, we’re already off to an amazing start to this conference after those inspiring remarks by President Bush! 

If there’s one thing I’ve taken away from the President’s beautiful, moving book, it’s this:

Right now, more than ever, we need to dream up the unexpected—especially for those who need it most.

Whether that’s the men and women who’ve sacrificed for our country or the everyday people who work hard to make ends meet.

Whether it’s the voiceless or the ones whose struggles haven’t made the headlines until now.

For all of them and all of us: We must build bridges bigger than the divisions among us. 

We must find fellowship in our common values and humanity. We must search boldly for reasons for hope, and as some of you heard in our Reasons for Hope anthem last night, we must remember—“that faith can move mountains.” We must stand for dialogue and inclusion and search for the underlying values that bind us together.

And there isn’t a minute to waste.

So with that as our charge, I want to join Linda and Mary in saying welcome to Dallas!

I spent my formative years here in the Lone Star state, and I couldn’t be more excited to be here in this great city with all of you as we kick off a phenomenal three days ahead.

It’s appropriate that we would convene in Dallas this year. This great city has been the site of some of our nation’s deepest sorrows—the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the tragic police shootings last summer. And yet each time—in the midst of pain and turmoil—we’ve seen Dallas evolve as a symbol of hope, of faith and of the enduring promise of American resilience and tenacity.

But before I delve too deeply into the importance of being here, and why I’m so happy to see more than 1,000 of you gathered here in Dallas, I want to thank our incredible sponsors for this year’s conference:

  • the Walton Family Foundation,
  • Head and Heart Philanthropy,
  • the Ford Foundation,
  • the Packard Foundation
  • and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

With their generous support, we’re able to bring you an event packed with thought-provoking opportunities to learn, connect, and be inspired.

We also had an amazing Host Committee for Dallas. I want to thank each of them for their dedication and hard work. I’d be remiss if I didn’t recognize two very special Host Committee members whom you heard just a short while ago: our co-chairs Linda Perryman Evans of the Meadows Foundation and a Council Board member, and Mary Jalonick of the Dallas Foundation. Thank you both for your many hours of work, your commitment to the sector AND for ensuring we all get a healthy dose of Texas hospitality while we’re here!

I’d like to thank our dedicated conference-planning groups, especially our Vibrant Communities Working Group and co-leads Tonya Allen of the Skillman Foundation and Kathleen McLaughlin of the Walmart Foundation, both members of our board.

And last but not least, I’d like to thank our Council Board and our hard-working Council staff. Bringing together more than 1,000 leaders and curating 200 speakers and 100 events takes a lot of creativity and long hours. Truly, none of this would be possible without all of you. Thank you.

Now because we’re in Dallas, I want to tell you a story about a couple of Texans. The set up actually sounds like a joke we’d all tell back in D.C. What happens when a Democrat and a Republican are stuck for 24-hours in a Chevy Impala?

Well, according to Twitter, the answer is #bipartisanroadtrip or maybe #CongressionalCannonballrun.

Either way, it was mid-March and a major East Coast snowstorm closed the airports. So Congressman Beto O’Rourke, a liberal Democrat, and Congressman Will Hurd, a conservative Republican, decided to drive the 1,600 miles from San Antonio to D.C. to vote.

With 20+ hours in the car ahead of them, the two began livestreaming their trip. Across America, delighted viewers started tuning in. Dozens of Congressional leaders took to social media to cheer them on.

They kicked off the road trip with breakfast tacos. And hours later you could watch the Congressmen sing a duet to Johnny Cash.

At one point, O’Rourke announced they’d crossed “a bipartisan bridge” when Hurd shared his iPhone password. Followers on Facebook and Twitter started using the word “bromance.”

But 24 hours together with the nation watching also means talking about weightier matters. Along the way, there was plenty of time—and questions from the public—about healthcare, about immigration, about taxes.

On each of these issues, the Congressmen came from vastly different perspectives. But being inside a car, having a conversation, gave new meaning to seeing eye to eye.

Did they change each other’s minds over Gibson’s Donuts in Memphis? Maybe not. But each heard one another out against the backdrop of America—from Southern Texas to D.C. And that’s a start.

When the two pulled up to a cheering crowd outside the Nation’s Capitol, O’Rourke started blasting “The Final Countdown.” But stepping from the car he had a message to share: "I should spend more time with my colleagues—I learned that from this trip.” He pointed to Hurd and smiled and said, "This is a guy I can work with.”

There’s a lesson for all of us in this story.

Which is why we’re asking each of you to think of the next few days as your own transformational road trip. However, this conference is just the beginning of the journey. Leading Together is our theme and is hard work. Bridging divides is the hardest work there is, but philanthropy is up to the task.

Some of this work is already being done. Forty community foundations have created the Community Foundation Opportunity Network to focus on the “opportunity gap” so all children have the chance to reach their full potential. Collaborations like this should become the norm.

Friends, we must remember that while we may each differ in our focus, our areas of expertise, our geographic targets—the reason why we fund projects is still universal. We each believe in the power of philanthropy to make a difference, to change lives, to build bridges.

Powerful shifts are happening across this country and around the world—and each of you has a vital role to play. Right here in Texas, heated debate is underway on critical issues to our time, such as immigration, LBGTQ rights, and education. But even divides such as these can find their way to common ground. We hope that all of you, particularly our attendees from Texas, will use this conference as a forum to talk to one another—and learn from one another—about how today’s climate is affecting the way you fund.

I know at the Council, we’ve been working hard to lead as a convener on the importance of civil discourse, of diversity and inclusion, the benefits of public-private partnerships, and other thoughtful conversations.

As you probably already know, we’ve bolstered our government relations team to make sure the voice of our sector, your voices, are heard loud and clear in Washington’s halls of power. We’ve always considered ourselves as the megaphone for the voice of philanthropy. And in the last year, we’ve turned the volume way up.

We’ve done so because with tax reform discussions in full swing, there are those in Washington who’ve proposed limiting or even eliminating the charitable deduction, while others are casting glances at endowments as they look for new sources of revenue.

And we’ve also been working hard to keep electoral politics out of the nonprofit sector. Many of you have already heard about efforts to weaken or repeal the Johnson Amendment. This is the law that keeps nonprofit, tax-deductible organizations out of electoral politics.

In fact, over 4,500 of you, organizations of all sizes, signed onto a letter—bridging any philosophical divides—to protect the work being done by the sector from a Johnson Amendment repeal. And, I might add, defend the good work of a great Texan, Lyndon B. Johnson. I’d like to thank Tim Delaney and the National Council of Nonprofits for their leadership and partnership on this effort.

The fact is, philanthropy has always been a mirror for the world in which it operates. And philanthropy has always used innovative ways to be a bridge between the world we are and the world we aspire to be.

You, as philanthropists, know you must look deeper into the human condition. One of the program tracks for this conference is vibrant communities, because we know that where people live has everything to do with how they live. Our communities’ civility, culture, health, economic development, and access to food and water not only affect our wellbeing today, they shape what our lives will look like in the years to come.

In just a few moments, you’re going to hear from the amazing thought-provoking powerhouse Ava Duvernay as she shares her thoughts about the power of truthful storytelling to spark hope and change in communities.

Tomorrow morning, you’ll hear from a panel of local leaders, including the Mayor of Dallas, Michael Rawlings, about how this city harnessed the tragedy of last year’s police shootings to build a better community by addressing underlying challenges.

We know that we are connected more than ever to our global neighbors, so we’re hosting a session on “Thinking Globally and Acting Locally.” We’ll examine how the Sustainable Development Goals are setting a framework for communities and the philanthropic sector to improve lives around the globe.

So, I invite you to problem solve together. To climb into that virtual Impala, set your sights on the road ahead, and push one another, support one another, maybe even just hear each other out.

In this changing world, philanthropy’s role is more important than ever. Your common mission and our shared values transcend everything that divides people into factions. And you know that when our challenges go deeper than politics, our search for solutions must, too.

Friends, that’s your strength, your purpose, and your enormous potential, especially in turbulent times.

So look around you. You’re surrounded by more than 1,000 people who share a common North Star:

That philanthropy’s mission is to speak to the human condition—in all its complex, diverse beauty.

That to find a way forward, we must fight to preserve civility in our common discourse.

That we each have one mouth, but two ears to listen. And our best solutions come when we hear and value every voice.

At the end of the day, all periods of change are opportunities. Within them is cause for hope, for healing and for dialogue. There’s also room for resistance, disruption, and challenges to the status quo. Sometimes, there’s even a chance for new alliances from the unlikeliest quarters.

After all, two days after their road trip, Congressmen O’Rourke and Hurd signed on to one another’s bills in the House. They exchanged gifts and planned a joint get together for their staffs—most of whom had never met. It’s a start.

Their story tells us we don’t always have to agree with each other. But we should all look for opportunities to get to know each other. Because that’s when the unexpected can happen.

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