BY MAX WILLIAMS
Charitable giving can bring people together on many different issues to find solutions that cross the traditional Oregon divides of geography, politics and culture.
Here in Oregon, there are wonderful examples of deeply committed individuals and families whose names are well known: the Schnitzers, the Hamptons, Fred Meyer, the Swindells, the Fords, the Grays, the Fields and many others who have dramatically given back to Oregon both as individuals and through foundations.
As a statewide organization, the Oregon Community Foundation brings both big and small donors together under one structure, leveraging their charitable dollars beyond their face value. This commitment to philanthropy at all levels gives us both a sense of optimism and many opportunities to improve life in Oregon.
But with this optimism and belief in the promise of Oregon, we are not blind to the state’s challenges. My experience in the Oregon legislature combined with running the state’s prison system for eight years has made me abundantly aware of the challenges that Oregon faces — structural, economic, geographic and demographic — coupled with a loss of trust and confidence in institutions to resolve our problems. There is hardly a category of Oregonian or region in our state that isn’t challenged, some dramatically more than others.
And while I don’t believe that foundations can solve all of our problems, I believe we have an important role to play. I believe that foundations have a combination of tangible and intangible resources that are highly distinctive.
First, we have money: a permanent endowment that allows us to take the long view and that provides us with flexible cash — not enough to grant our way to solving all of these problems, but enough to research, develop innovations and convene partners.
Second, we have broad networks. We can be effective in building partnerships and networks across a variety of sectors and in working with volunteers, donors and other foundations to leverage our efforts. One example of this approach is OCF’s work on the Chalkboard Project, founded with our partner foundations: the Meyer Memorial Trust, Collins Foundation, the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation and the Jeld-Wen Foundation. Ten years later, nearly 50% of Oregon’s schoolchildren are benefitting through Chalkboard’s innovative work in school districts around the state. The effort, research and collaboration that went into developing Chalkboard is a tremendous example of the role that foundations can play in working toward solutions to Oregon’s big challenges. Today the Chalkboard partners have expanded — and represent private, public and corporate philanthropy — all dedicated to helping narrow Oregon’s education achievement gap.
Third, foundations have credibility. Surveys suggest there is a significantly higher level of public trust in the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors than in either government or business. This trust often allows us to do things that other sectors can’t: to take risks when the tried — and true — methods aren’t working and to be patient when only long-term responses will yield the best results. This trust is maintained through smart investment and transparency in our work.
Foundations do have a unique capability to navigate the critical intersection between the public, the private and the nonprofit sectors. If we do it well, we can continue to find innovative solutions that are scalable to address our most pressing statewide and community challenges. Although our challenges will change over time, we know that the success of philanthropy will continue to rest on our ability to bring people together in new and creative ways based on common values and the fundamental generosity of committed Oregonians. And if Oregon’s history of caring and innovation are any indication, foundations are poised to be even stronger partners in Oregon’s future, forging a path to positive change.