Transaction to Transformation

This post originally appeared on the Association for Baltimore Area Grantmaker’s Blog, Adventures in Philanthropy, on June 19, 2015: https://www.towncreekfdn.org//ht.ly/Ox6yH

Transaction to Transformation

By Stuart Clarke, ABAG Board Member and Executive Director, Town Creek Foundation

I was recently invited to speak at the Annual Meeting of the Association of Baltimore Area Grantmakers about the work we are doing at the Town Creek Foundation and how it illustrates one of the goals’ of the Association’s newly presented strategic plan.

ABAG’s mission is to maximize the impact of philanthropic giving on community life through a growing network of diverse, informed and effective philanthropists. As an ABAG Board Member, I was happy to speak about the foundation and about the strategic plan that I helped develop, which acknowledges the long standing roles of our Association as a convener and leader for collective and transformative action and how we will seek to elevate that role, maximizing our unique ability to convene a broad range of stakeholders, to be a voice, to lead public discourse and to influence governance and policy affecting the issues and communities we serve.

The new plan highlights four main goals, and I helped illustrate Goal #1:

“The Association will lead, with and for its members, efforts to influence critical issues and improve community conditions.” I discussed transaction to transformation and how the Town Creek Foundation thinks about our work and our collaboration with other members to encourage more systemic change.

Here are my remarks:

“It’s fun to be up here talking to you this morning, at least partly because – for at least two reasons – it’s sort of an odd place for me to be. First, Town Creek is a thirty-four year old environmental advocacy funder that, until pretty recently, has had a pretty low profile in Baltimore. Our more significant distinguishing characteristic, however, is that we are sun-setting. We are in the middle of the fourth year of a ten-year spend down. We plan to make our last grants, throw a big party, and bounce the caterer’s check at the end of 2021.

I’m here to tell you that self-imposed mortality can have an urgently clarifying influence on institutional thinking. Our decision to sunset was made in 2011, after a period of significant environmental progress in Maryland on issues of primary concern to us. This was a period that culminated in the establishment of relatively ambitious goals, strategies and plans to reduce the state’s contributions to Bay pollution and global warming.

Rather than basking in that glow, however, our decision to sunset prompted us to confront three questions about our work and our partnerships:

  • Is the scale and pace of change that we were seeing sufficient in view of the political, economic, and ecological headwinds that appear to be on the way?
  • Are the strategies that are producing incremental pollution reductions also building sufficient political power to sustain and accelerate those reduction sunder change political and economic circumstances?
  • Can we sustainably address Maryland’s major pollution challenges by reforming the practices that generate that pollution but leaving unchanged the purpose, logic, and structural relationships of the systems in which those practices are embedded?

It probably won’t surprise you that we emerged from this confrontation convinced that the answers to these questions are probably no. That we probably haven’t done enough of the right things to earn the self-satisfied retirement we’d been planning.

So we jumped into our last decade intent on encouraging our partners to augment their transactional strategies focused on incremental change with transformational strategies focused on systemic change.

  • We think we know what that means, but we know that we don’t know precisely how it works. We do think that five things are probably critical. The first three have to do with our grantmaking:
  • We think we need to invest in vision – in work that produces narratives of fundamentally different futures for the state and the region;
  • We think we need to invest in leadership – especially leadership with an appetite for boldness; and
  • We think we need to invest in examples, in pilot projects – real live pieces of the future that we need to build.

The last two things are about where we invest our time and our commitment, rather than where we invest our funds.

We need to be present with folks that are struggling with our toughest problems – not just environmental problems, but the full panoply of social and economic problems that we need to overcome. And, we need to engage that struggle in the state’s center of gravity, here, in Baltimore, where the challenges and the opportunities present themselves in the rawest and ripest forms.

So that’s why we are showing up at ABAG, and that’s why I am standing up for this strategic plan.”