by Phillip Henderson | President, Surdna Foundation | Dec. 2, 2013

autumn leaves

Years ago, the Surdna Foundation board decided that its November meeting should be different. They believe that grantmakers like Surdna are afforded the great opportunity of taking a long-term view of their work. We were established to exist in perpetuity and have a responsibility to use this unique status to help foster just and sustainable communities in the United States. We’re doing this not only by looking at today’s challenges, but also by peering around corners to try and understand how a complex mix of emerging trends and currents is shaping the communities we care about. In trying to understand the forces impacting the future, and how we can prepare for them, we have to first look at how our work is doing in the present.    

So at our November board meeting, unlike the year’s other three board meetings which are closely connected to our grantmaking rhythms, we step back to reflect on the year that was and think together about the years ahead.

November marked a full year since the launch of refined strategies in each of our three programs: Sustainable Environments, Thriving Cultures, and Strong Local Economies.  Embedded in those strategies are hunches about how Surdna could use its know-how to push for just and sustainable communities.  And within each strategy are assumptions that guide our thinking—big questions we are trying to answer.

The meeting was designed to allow all of us to lift the hood and look at each of our core strategies, and to have a robust discussion about what we’ve been learning.  And, to ask questions, lots of questions.  I think we succeeded.  But a successful meeting is not synonymous with success in all of our work.  We are far from answering all the questions underlying our strategies, but we think we’re on the right track. If you’re not grappling with the right questions, it’s pretty certain you won’t find useful answers.  

Foundations have to be very careful when labeling something a “success.”  We don’t contend with traditional market forces, and the very act of giving away money generates positive feedback, so it can be easy to fall prey to the belief that your work is performing better than it actually is. Declaring something a success might also suggest that we are aiming too low and not taking enough risk in our work.  So it’s no surprise, then, that some our hunches were somewhat naïve or incomplete, but others turned out to be right on the mark. 

Our culture is such that board meetings provide a space for authentic discussion of the mistakes we’ve made, where we’ve succeeded beyond our initial hopes, and how we’re learning from both.  So what were some of the issues we discussed in November?

In Sustainable Environments, when we embarked on our Next Generation Infrastructure work last year, we believed one measure of success would be if innovation was articulated as an integrated set of solutions in transportation, energy, food, and water infrastructure. But we thought this “integrated” approach would take a while to be developed and accepted. Transforming the way elected officials, community leaders, and experts think about this work would require patience and persistence. However, over the course of the past year, we’ve found that the field is already ripe for this kind of new thinking and is increasingly receptive to conversations about integrated infrastructure. 

One area within our Strong Local Economies program began its work last year focused, in part, on stimulating the growth of worker-owned cooperatives and other non-traditional business models.  Our assumption at the time was that we were seeking the best “model” of such businesses, and our core question was how to grow that model once we determined which one was best.  What we found, however, was that the underlying financial, leadership, and other essential support systems for these kinds of businesses – regardless of which model we chose – was weak and incomplete.  So we have had to modify our approach, take one step back, and concentrate on building a support infrastructure so that, regardless of the model we invest in, it can succeed.

We refined our Thriving Cultures program with the belief that artists and culture makers are critical to sustainable communities, as they help to create places that are healthier and more livable. Last year, when we began assessing the funding landscape and identifying like-minded foundations, we asked a series of questions about how—and if—others were designing their strategies for the explicit benefit of low-income communities and communities of color. While we realized that we are not alone in affixing an equity lens to our cultural investments, we do find ourselves in the minority of arts funders who have a social justice approach. Moving forward we plan to collaborate with like-minded funders to better support the field.

Learning from and adjusting our strategies is part and parcel of being successful in our work.  But pausing to reflect and think about how accurate our hunches have been is not a natural act.  The tendency is to simply look forward and take on the next challenge.  The fact that our board has designated each November meeting as one for reflection challenges all of us to pause and take the time to assess how we’re doing.

We are addressing a set of ever-shifting, complex problems. Almost daily, issues take on new, sometimes confounding dimensions. So we cannot for a moment afford to grow overly satisfied with our approaches. Learning what works and what doesn’t, and then pivoting, demands that we constantly evaluate and tweak our work. And, importantly, that we are honest when we have missed the mark.

I am looking forward to sharing more lessons over the next year.

As ever, let me know your thoughts and suggestions as Surdna continues its work to foster just and sustainable communities in the United States.



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Fostering sustainable communities in the United States — communities guided by principles of social justice and distinguished by healthy environments, strong local economies, and thriving cultures.