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If the Surdna Foundation stands for “thriving cultures,” then should it truly be looking at government for the answers? This is certainly an important discussion to be had.

Phil Henderson, president of the Surdna Foundation in New York City, recently advised those in philanthropy “not to be in a hurry.” Henderson’s sobering insights act as a modest reminder of philanthropy’s roots – of the humanity at the center of charitable enterprise. Nevertheless, Surdna finds itself in need of a different modest reminder.

The Surdna Foundation – an admittedly “quiet” foundation flying under the radar up on Madison Ave – is a private grant-making foundation. Founded ninety-seven years ago, the foundation boasts $800 million in assets, with another $167 million in income. With this budget, the foundation admits that they spend about $40 million each year on their programs. Though the foundation’s broad mission is “fostering sustainable communities in the United States,” their specific focus is in three areas: sustainable environments, strong local economies, and thriving cultures. One example of a recent grant that the foundation provided is a six-figure gift to Maryland’s Job Opportunities Task Force to "strengthen connections between workers and training opportunities.”

Recently, Phil Henderson has been discreetly conducting a number of interviews throughout the philanthropic blogosphere and his message is encouraging and refreshing.

In a podcast interview with Henderson late last week, the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s Hildy Gottlieb asked some intriguing questions about his experiences in and out of the Surdna Foundation. Henderson provided valuable anecdotes from across his storied career.

Throughout interview, Henderson highlighted a triplet of themes regarding the “messiness of philanthropy.” First, he spoke of the importance of values. Telling of when he first became president of the foundation, Henderson shared a brief narrative about what was an organization in transition. As the leadership reflected upon their mission, however, Henderson quickly realized, “it wasn’t data, it wasn’t information, it wasn’t a technical fix . . . it was a values question.” These values (or a term I prefer, principles) lead an organization through transformational periods, but more importantly guide longer-term missions. Though the foundation had always been led by the founder’s “thrift, practicality, modesty, loyalty, excellence, and . . . appreciation to those in need,” Henderson’s values conversation let the leadership further discuss how to renew such a vision and how to implement it nearly a century later.

Second, Henderson noted that philanthropy is “a business that takes a long time.” In addition to “defining values,” organizations and foundations need to reshape their programming “with a view far into the future.” By taking time, organizations will be more effective and therefore more charitable. “The soupy science of philanthropy [is] not to be in a hurry.”

Finally, early in the interview Henderson – speaking of his experiences early in his career in Eastern Europe – proclaimed: “Communities matter and that people in those communities need to be able to both understand and articulate, and then do something about the challenges they face.” Thus, from Henderson’s remarks, it appears that local character plays a great role in determining values and strategies for philanthropy.

In an era of big data – nay, humongous data – Henderson’s message of values, prudence, and communities resonate, reinvigorating charitable imagination. Henderson’s message was seemingly rather on point.

However . . .

Earlier last week, Henderson authored a blog post lauding the White House Summit on Working Families, an all-day affair co-sponsored by the Department of Labor and the Center for American Progress. Additionally, the progressive Main Street Alliance played a big role throughout the summit. With floundering economic recovery so far in 2014, the intention for the event is certainly praiseworthy; however, the event’s focus on globalism and policy seem to run contrary to Henderson’s remarks of community and culture.

Surdna supports the Main Street Alliance, as well as a number of other organizations that played a big role at this event. Supporting his grantees, Henderson writes, “While the full weight on the White House was on display, it will take a broad and deep movement to keep the pressure on, both in Congress and in state houses across the country.”

If the Surdna Foundation stands for “thriving cultures,” then should it truly be looking at government for the answers? This is certainly an important discussion to be had.

Principle, prudence, and community are great places to start; but shouldn’t voluntarism have a place in philanthropy?

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