Last month, the Philanthropy Roundtable celebrated the organization’s official 30th anniversary at its Annual Meeting at The Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, the site of the Roundtable’s first Annual Meeting three decades ago. Former Roundtable president Adam Meyerson and DonorsTrust President and CEO Lawson Bader joined our current President and CEO Elise Westhoff to reminisce and look to the future.
The idea of an organization that would serve philanthropic donors who shared the values of liberty, opportunity and personal responsibility — and who wished to see their intent acknowledged and protected — first surfaced among a small network of grantmakers in the 1970s. As Meyerson recalled, two events sparked the determination of those philanthropists to take action. The first was the 1976 letter written by Henry Ford II, grandson of the founder of the Ford Motor Company, explaining his resignation from the Ford Foundation’s board of trustees. Among his several concerns, Ford noted, was that although “the foundation exists and thrives on the fruits of our economic system … it is hard to discern recognition of this fact in anything the foundation does.”
The second event was a speech delivered by journalist and public intellectual Irving Kristol to the 1980 annual conference of the Council on Foundations titled “Foundations and the Sin of Pride: The Myth of the Third Sector.” Kristol worried that private philanthropy endangered itself by getting too cozy with government, particularly in the pursuit of grand yet amorphous outcomes. “It seems to me,” he warned, “that foundations, therefore, have a special responsibility to be wary of government and to be a lot more solicitous of their own sector, which, I repeat, is the private sector. You’re not above the private sector, by God, you’re in it.” Kristol’s message was not well-received by an audience that preferred to think of themselves as members of a “third sector,” one more purpose-driven and virtuous than for-profit enterprise.
A belief in the free market, along with a commitment to donor intent and smart, strategic grantmaking, did, however, characterize the newly created donor network directed by Leslie Lenkowsky that originally operated under the Institute for Educational Affairs (IEA). In 1991, that organization became an independent nonprofit corporation based in Indianapolis named the Philanthropy Roundtable. Kim Dennis agreed to serve as the Roundtable’s first executive director and convened its first Annual Meeting at The Broadmoor, with some 90 donors in attendance.
When asked about the principles that guided the organization during its early years, Dennis replied,
“The Roundtable was founded to create a counterweight to forces that were pushing philanthropy in a direction that was more professionalized, driven more by staff than by donors, and more animated by trendy notions of social justice than by donors’ unique preferences and interests. Those trends persist today, and if anything, have only intensified, which is why the Roundtable is more needed than ever. In its early days, the Roundtable was very much in start-up mode. Whitney [Ball] and I made things up as we went along. It never occurred to us to have a business plan, for instance. But the need for a voice to protect donor intent and to have a forum for donors to be able to share ideas openly — that always gave us a purpose.”
As Lawson Bader reminded Annual Meeting attendees, the entrepreneurial spirit that has always defined Philanthropy Roundtable also sparked the formation of DonorsTrust in 1999. It was a Roundtable donor, he noted, concerned about the preservation of his donor intent at a community foundation to which he had contributed funds that led DonorsTrust founders Whitney Ball and Kim Dennis to conceive the idea of “a community foundation for liberty-minded donors.”
The return of Roundtable donors to The Broadmoor this year marked three decades of commitment to the organization’s original mission and founding ideals. In these 30 years, four individuals have served as president: Kim Dennis, John Walters, Adam Meyerson and Elise Westhoff. Their different personalities and leadership styles have contributed to a series of successful ventures, including:
- Philanthropy magazine, which served as the sector’s leading periodical
- guidebooks to provide donors with the best topic-specific information to guide their giving
- working groups to convene donors so they might learn collectively about shared interests
- the Alliance for Charitable Reform to protect and strengthen philanthropic freedom, whose work continues today under the Roundtable banner
- the William E. Simon Prize for Philanthropic Leadership, now the Simon DeVos Prize, to honor living philanthropists who show exemplary leadership through their own charitable giving
- a bolder public profile to confront new threats to capitalism, private philanthropy and donor intent that will bring new donors into the Roundtable family
In her conversation with Meyerson and Bader, Westhoff first recalled the many ways the Roundtable had assisted her during her time at The Snider Foundation and then focused on her current leadership role with the organization and the ideological threats that now face private philanthropy. At this moment, she noted, we are challenged by those who reject capitalism and the free market and who disrespect traditional American values. “There has never been a more important time for an organization like this to stand up for our values, fight for our country, fight for the importance of private voluntary action to solve problems … and show the generosity of Americans,” she concluded.
Despite changes over the years, an enduring commitment to the values of liberty, opportunity and personal responsibility ties together all the pieces of the Roundtable’s past — and continues to define its evolving future. As it enters its fourth decade, Philanthropy Roundtable reaffirms its purpose to connect those shared values to impact and to hold firm in its determination to empower individuals, support communities and strengthen our free society. Now under the creative and energetic leadership of Elise Westhoff, one of Adam Meyerson’s favorite phrases rings true: “The best days of Philanthropy Roundtable are yet to come.”