Earlier this year I blogged about why conferences matter, even for seasoned professionals who are at the top of their game.  But conferences also have their limitations.

For example; conversations tend to be shorter, less in-depth and less focused.  To some extent this i balanced by a plurality of topics and a diversity of views derived from a larger group size, but often we find that the delegates attending conferences tend to aggregate around a certain profile of organisation.  This can sometimes be determined by practical considerations such as the ticket price (which may exclude smaller start-ups or lean organisations), or alternatively the subject matter itself can narrow the field – after all, an arts fundraising conference is unlikely to attract many participants from the healthcare sector!

From symposium to “Home-posium”

It was with this in mind that we developed our Talking Philanthropy symposium, hosted at our founder’s home in Suffolk and now in its second successful year.  We set out to convene a group of professionals from across the spectrum of philanthropy, who between them represented the diversity and richness of the sector.

Central to the philosophy of the day was to create a non-corporate, family style environment away from the demands of email and phone, in which to take time and space to reflect on the big issues in our sector.  Mobile phones were nowhere to be seen, and our guests clearly relished the opportunity to step away from the regular pace of their professional lives and engage in some deeper thinking.

We invited a select group of guests who would each bring a different perspective to the day. Diversity was key, and from the outset, we were keen to ensure that the event included:

  • both small and large organisations (from £500k income to £100m+),
  • a range of levels of professional fundraising experience amongst the guests, as well as philanthropists who wanted to learn more about effective giving and leadership,
  • a variety of organisations that represented all sides of the philanthropic relationship, and
  • a range of organisational histories – from nimble start-ups to those with a long history.

Furthermore, the event was tightly limited in size – just 55 participants – ensuring that the atmosphere was intimate and the subject matter was addressed in detail.  The key to this was a common commitment to creating a confidential “safe space” where everyone could speak openly about the real world issues they were facing.

The final pieces of the puzzle were two exceptional speakers who framed the discussions around leadership with their unique and inspirational perspectives.


The changing role of boards

What emerged from the day was a fascinating view of leadership across the philanthropic sector, both positive and negative.  A kind of “state of the union” on the successes and challenges we all encounter.

Three key themes stood out from the day:

  1. The UK has some truly exceptional leadership in the philanthropic sector, particularly in Arts & Culture which has attracted amazing talent that demonstrates how quality leadership can be transformational for organisations.
  2. Whereas there is a broadly accepted model of board participation in the USA (Give, Get or Get Off), this is not the case in Europe. The role of boards – whether they be fundraising, governance or strategic – is less defined, and the expectations of both board members and management are more varied. There was no shortage of examples of both “good” and “bad” boards, and a plurality of opinion on what role boards ought to play, as well as how to “get them there”.  It was clear that this is a major issue facing many organisations, and a source of both support and difficulty for leaders.
  3. There are no quick fixes for leadership success. It was recognised across the group that whilst there are stylistic techniques that can be used, leadership is a multifaceted issue that needs a nuanced approach spanning both soft and hard skills.

Reflecting on the day and reading the guest’s feedback, it is clear that a confidential and more intimate event produces a very different experience; one that delves deeper into the issues and holds a mirror up to the sector.

Hearing that many of the same challenges are shared across the sector (even if they varied contextually) was clearly as valuable for many of those present as sharing the means and methods for tackling them.

As a team, it’s our sincere hope that this has, in some small way, helped develop our understanding of the realities of philanthropy and fundraising.