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Questioning the Foundation

by Mark Peres

December 6,2007

This past week the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute convened its 2nd Annual Regional Issues Conference. Hundreds of civic and academic leaders met at the UNCC Barnhardt Student Activity Center to hear reflections from notable panelists about how the city has changed and emerging regional opportunities. The centerpiece of the conference was the unveiling of the UI Charlotte Regional Indicators Project, a breakthrough annual assessment that quantifies the region’s progress on a range of economic, social and environmental issues. However, what struck me of particular note were summary comments made by Dr. Michael Marsicano, president & CEO of The Foundation for the Carolinas, about how the Foundation could imagine using the Indicators in its soon-to-be-announced plans to step forward aggressively into active civic leadership. I shared my thoughts with Dr. Marsicano afterward, and he engaged intently, offering nuances for me to consider. Yet I walked away with significant concerns. 

Here’s what I heard in Dr. Marsicano’s public remarks: Dr. Marsicano made the case (along with Paul Grogan, president & CEO of The Boston Foundation who spoke immediately afterward) that energetic civic leadership from traditional institutions (newspapers and corporations) is waning, and that trusted community foundations have an opportunity, indeed a duty, to step in and aggressively define and lead the civic agenda. The traditional role of community foundations – pooling and managing donor resources and seeding and sustaining non-profit organizations – is fine and important, but no longer enough. In the current landscape, a community foundation can and should do more to further its overriding mission of making “our piece of ground better” – namely, it should itself lead. It can and should have its own staff in the public arena advancing its own solutions to public issues. It can and should wield its own considerable resources to coalesce people around causes. And it can – and no doubt will – aggregate dollars in a Foundation-managed “Civic Leadership Fund” to further this expanded role. 

Here are my concerns: the region will not be served in the long run by a consolidation of civic leadership under the Foundation’s banner. Although it will lead to short-term catalytic gains, it risks stifling the democratization of leadership that is necessary for this region to prosper and mature. 

We have a legacy in this town of oligarchic leadership. It may have dissipated greatly from legendary days of a gang of five deciding in a boardroom what is in the best interest of the city, but there remains nostalgia for a strong hand. The sentiment is rationalized by a view that unless an institution steps in, nothing of note “gets done.” This is unsound reasoning. Surely we want the public-private partnerships we are so proud of to continue when a grand civic opportunity presents itself, but we also need space and time for organic leadership to arise. Indeed, ultimately, anything of authentic texture in this town happens from the ground up – not from the top down. The action is on the grassroots level – in all its mess, failures and miss hits.  

I appreciate that it must frustrate those with the purse to no end when a promising non-profit spends donor money and fails. The temptation is understandable for a community foundation to say we can do better and let’s just do it ourselves. But it is the wrong course. Citizens will not rise up and do extraordinary things unless they have the room to make mistakes. 

One irony in all this is that many people in power bemoan the lack of new leaders at the table, and yet forge ahead with initiatives that consolidate their own power. If we want to empower others, then we need to distribute it and get out of the way.  

The great danger in the Foundation taking such an active role in civic leadership is that there will be those in the tent and those outside the tent. With the money flowing to the Foundation Civic Leadership Fund, people with ideas will be herded to the Foundation to get their ticket punched. That means review and prioritization and selection – and many on the outside looking in who will have not received validation. Just like how the arts in Charlotte have become centralized and bureaucratic, so will civic leadership. That’s not a future that excites me.

Editor's Note:  Charlotte ViewPoint has received grant dollars from the Foundation for the Carolinas and from the ASC.

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