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April 2, 2015 / Ciara Myers, Editor

Business and Philanthropy: A partnership whose time has come

by Tamara Copeland
President
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

Last week, Bob Buchanan, principal of Buchanan Partners, a real estate development company, and president of the 2030 Group, an association of business leaders focused on regional issues and solutions, came to speak to WRAG member CEOs as part of our CEO Coffee and Conversation series. He was invited after he and Dr. Stephen Fuller (of the Center for Regional Analysis, George Mason University) called for a regional economic summit.  They suggested that, because the backbone of our region’s economy has been the federal government and that given the changes in our region’s relationship to this hometown employer, we must create a new regional economic reality.  They also underscored the fact that this isn’t a situation to be addressed solely by the District of Columbia or Fairfax, VA, or any other jurisdiction in our region, but a regional problem that should be examined as a whole and addressed by regional leaders using a broad lens and a long-range view.

I invited Bob to speak because, surprisingly, they hadn’t viewed philanthropy as one of the sectors to call to the planning table until I reached out. When asked why philanthropy wasn’t included, Bob responded, “business leaders go to those who can move the needle.”

What a wake up call!  Clearly, philanthropy wasn’t viewed as a change agent.

For years, I have thought that philanthropy doesn’t do enough to highlight the role that it plays in social change. That’s why we produced Beyond Dollars in 2009, featured Philanthropy Factoids in the Daily WRAG throughout 2011, and updated Beyond Dollars with a progress report in 2013. We wanted to showcase all that philanthropy does to improve people’s lives.  Unfortunately, that message hasn’t reached the business community, and part of that responsibility lies with us.  When I look back over the speakers that WRAG has presented over the last decade, I can’t find one business leader who isn’t also a philanthropist.  Until the conversation with Bob Buchanan, WRAG had not invited a business leader to present his or her ideas to philanthropy. We had not explored with business shared views and values toward possible shared action. In retrospect, wow.

So, WRAG is working to change that.  Bob Buchanan underscored the altruistic role that funders can play. He noted that when he speaks up for a particular need, he is often lumped in the category of “greedy developer” just trying to make his project work. Often, yes, he is trying to make a project happen, but it is a project that can improve the lives of many who live in a specific community.  His business identity often obscures the fact that he wants to turn a profit and improve the community.  He challenged the funding community to:

  • Consider how they are perceived as only helping the “un-” and “under-” members of the community. He acknowledged that funders are trying to improve the lives of all who live in a community and that when the “un”served or “under”served are helped, all community members are helped. He feels that the business community doesn’t see the role of philanthropy as helping everybody;
  • Look at how they might support start-up businesses that can improve the viability of communities just as they support start up/innovative, new social profit organizations; and
  • Make financial investments with their assets, not just grants.

He believes that elected officials charged with serving their discrete constituencies and limited by a relatively brief time in office can’t be the sole partners of business, particularly in pursuit of a new regional economic dynamic. He wants philanthropy to play a role.  Now we must determine what that role should be.

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