2020 Annual Governance Meeting
On September 17, 2020, the Vermont Community Foundation held a virtual Annual Meeting for its Board of Directors, membership, and supporting organizations. The agenda was focused on the organization's performance and asset management.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the Community Foundation was unable to host its typical celebration inviting guests from across our network. Therefore, we encourage you to watch the video segments of the virtual gathering, and you can also read the full text President & CEO Dan Smith's remarks below.
Playlist of All Videos
President & CEO Dan Smith's Remarks
What you’ve just heard highlights where we were at the end of 2019 and what we’ve been able to do over the last 9 months.
What I’m about to do is low on the list of Zoom best practices—nobody wants to watch a talking head for 20 minutes, but those on this call reflect a unique group—narrower than our normal approach to the Annual Meeting—folks who are new and many previously engaged in our governance. I think its important to share how we think about our role in the months and years ahead. So bear with me.
When it comes to building on those reports, it was hard to know where to start… but to me in this case makes sense to start close to home.
I want to extend a key note of gratitude—that is to our staff—Zoomed in from their homes, as they have been since March 13.
We pivoted on March 13 onto remote footing and launched a fast paced, coordinated response to the pandemic. That response included an audacious goal, a commitment to partnership and a keen sense of purpose. The volume of work has been astounding and this team has not missed a beat.
In my view, the VCF team has honored the unique role of a community foundation and elevated the core faith that neighbors will step up for each other in a crisis. These moments are the moments for which a community foundation exists.
Our work in the last few months has also deepened our credibility and built confidence among funders and partners—that credibility is the product of good teams and great people, in particular their emotional investment, the care, diligence and attention they provide to our partners. It is also the product of our approach to impact and of our stewardship—these attributes are manifest every day by the people in this organization at every level.
As members of the organization and as leaders in your communities and in our governance, you should know that about this team—I hope you take it with you and share it among those in your circles—that there is a great team here and an organization that believes it is possible to make progress and make a difference.
Their work is one of the things that inspires me and gives me hope.
Looking back, in 2017 we took the ambitious step of focusing nearly all of our discretionary resources on closing the opportunity gap because of the social and economic schism we saw emerging and its presence at the root of so many community and civic challenges. We were not alone in that concern.
Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation in 2016: “Have we heard and heeded the frustrations of communities anxious and unsettled as their economic security erodes. Have we been too focused on familiar ground, overlooking the wider circumstances of suffering and inequality?”
Robert Putnam, our guest speaker at the 2015 Annual Meeting and the author of “Our Kids” wrote “We might ponder whether the bleak, socially estranged future facing poor kids in America today could have unanticipated political consequences tomorrow.” That was written well before 2016.
As a country we now have unique visibility into the national trends and truths based on the work of big data and economists like Raj Chetty. It is possible to predict economic mobility down to the neighborhood and zip code—the proposition of a place.
That insight tells us that anyone born since 1980, has only a 50/50 chance of doing better than their parents. If you were born in the 1940s, it was 90%.
Those are meaningfully different generational perspectives on the proposition offered by our society. And that’s before you control for race and ethnicity. Those numbers are even more stark if you’re born into a black, brown or indigenous family.
We operate in a civic framework—a set of agreements and promises that we make to each other. Its design is predicated on the idea that we recognize our shared stake and take responsibility for each other’s experience.
We know that history and privilege have obscured much of the truth of that framework.
In our current moment, we have to ask: what stake can we expect people to take in each other’s future when data and experience tells us their prospects are in decline?
When less than half of kids will do better than their parents, then less than half of kids and parents have a stake worth giving something up for. And this was all in play—simmering—before 30 million people across the country became suddenly unemployed and tens of thousands of Vermonters lost their jobs and the pandemic compounded our community challenges.
Sarah’s slides on 2019 described an important year for exploring the opportunity gap across the Vermont context, listening in communities and engaging the framework. A little over $17 million in aligned grantmaking across all fund types touched on those levers of change.
Close work with our cornerstone partners and high levels of coordination with Let’s Grow Kids, High Meadows, the Curtis Fund and the J. Warren and Lois McClure Foundation and across our Vermont mission investing platform in this work. That progress is the kind of thing that gives me hope about where we can go.
It also reflects two key transitions - the evolution of the Vermont Community Foundation and our supporting organizations from grant-makers to long term problem solvers. It also reflects our increasing ability to transition our unique insight - what we learn about Vermont issues and communities - into what we do and what we offer as advice and guidance to Vermont philanthropists.
All that was under way and then 2020 … the frailty of these systems in this moment, the sense of scarcity and vulnerability, the lack of resilience—the structural inequity reflected in the opportunity gap is the kindling to which the pandemic put a match.
As with folks across the social sector—without whom the experience of Vermonters in the last seven months would have been far far worse—we find ourselves operating at the confluence of four community crises with a fifth inexorably present.
The first is the public health crisis of the pandemic and its related urgent needs.
The second is economic dislocation triggered by the pandemic and the incongruous experience of those with college degrees and with assets in the financial markets and that of low- and moderate-income families.
In Vermont, our small business economy—key to our communities—has been battered. Consumer spending is down 7.3% from January. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Not even close.
Who has been pinched? Among high income families in Vermont spending is 20% ABOVE where it was in January nine months ago. For middle and low income families it is 8% down and 34% down, respectively. On a national level, just as an example, job postings in hospitality and tourism are down roughly 40% over where they were in 2019 at this time of year. A key industry sector in VT. It is likely we have yet to glimpse the full economic impact on our communities.
We have handled the public health crisis well, but we must now face the structural economic weakness experienced by Vermont families.
The third crisis is born of the lived experience of black, indigenous and people of color in this country and in Vermont, elevated by the surge of awareness and activism triggered by events of police brutality but focusing in an expansive way on this country’s edifice of systemic racism. This movement has unmasked and inflamed passion and awareness that for too long was muted by comfort and privilege. With that understanding comes the promise and commitment that we must share a future in which all Vermonters for now and in the decades ahead, regardless of race or color, see this place as one filled with potential, hope, equity and a sense of connection.
The fourth crisis? A changing climate reflected in the fires across the pacific states and mountain west, haze from which has begun to color our own sunsets across the lake—last year, as we asked Vermont voices to consider what lay ahead, the reality of climate migration was already top of mind for many who shared their thoughts. The scope of these four challenges is united and informed by a common fifth: the weakness of the civic framework that should be addressing them. We are bearing witness to the inability of our civic structure to address big problems and compel failing systems to adapt. A pandemic, a climate crisis, equal treatment and economic security—the scale of these challenges and the suffering our lack of progress causes – they require us to come together.
Now, we could indulge a debate on the logic models and relative urgency of each crisis as it unfolds. I didn’t even mention that opioid overdose deaths in Vermont increased by 20% in the first half of the year.
But the ability to focus narrowly on one issue instead of looking upstream to where those issues intersect is only possible if you have trust, stated or implied, that someone else is going to do the work on the others.
Who does that work fall to?
These are big problems, uncertain times, real suffering and real frustration. We need to ask ourselves who is looking out beyond. We need to ask ourselves how the work on each gets done and where we fit, as an organization, as individuals. Will we approach this work as we have thus far this century – from a zero sum, scarcity mindset that pulls us apart and assumes that when our neighbor or another community gains a step, we lose one. Or will we come together with a sense of shared destiny to lift the conditions that hold these challenges in place?
The smart folks at the FSG group describe systems change as the work of shifting the conditions that hold problems in place. Shifting the conditions that hold problems in place.
Big problems and uncertain times. Real people. Real frustration.
What’s familiar feels safe and comfortably authentic in uncertain times. It is tempting to do what we’ve done before and focus on what fits our own pattern of thinking. I check the stock market every day.
If we let that alluring comfort guide our work, as Walker put it, we turn away from the broad circumstances of suffering and inequality and disruption faced in our backyard. These are not someone else’s problems to solve.
History is being made in this moment. A generation from now one of two stories will be told– that this was the window of time in which people realized too late the stark consequences of our inability to see past patterns of behavior and accept a commonly defined interest.
Or they’ll tell the story of a hopeful time, in which leadership came from new quarters and people came together in the spirit of shared fate, in the faith that we can do better and be better if we do the work, that we have the ability to correct failing systems that cause real suffering. A hopeful time in which we came together in the shared space of communities, we came together honestly across history, wealth, race, region, education, ability, gender with an expectation and commitment that all aspects of society (government, business, faith, not for profit and philanthropy) align to do more, share more, listen more, think more, give more and ACT TOGETHER in a way that fulfills the promises we’ve made to each other and the promises we make to the messy entirety of our local, state and national communities.
Race, climate, economic imbalance, pandemic, civic revival—headway is ours to make.
As a community foundation we always choose to hope and believe. In that messy alchemy, that web of life and community and the cycles of generations we believe there is room for progress based on the spirit of giving and passion for place. For individuals, giving is a way of doing something—it is an action at a time when actions are hard to come by. We can talk, we can give, we can serve, we can vote, we can volunteer. We can do the work of caring for our families and our neighbors and those who we work alongside us.
In this moment, as a vehicle for philanthropy, it is our responsibility to always choose hope—to lean into the belief that a society can correct, not because we are immune to anxiety or cynicism, but because we are privileged to witness daily acts of generosity and the sheer creativity that exists when people come together.
Our view of the world tells us the essential psychology of care remains abundant among our friends and neighbors.
But hope alone isn’t a strategy. And those of us who are a part of this web have unique tools at our disposal and we can’t let them sit idle as we look at the coming years. Jamie Merisotis, head of the Lumina Foundation recently observed that charity alone is not enough. “Charity is about help, about meeting urgent needs,” he said. Philanthropy is different. “Philanthropy is focused not on symptoms, but on root causes. It is systemic; not episodic. It is active rather than reactive.”
Clear eyed, what does this mean for the Vermont Community Foundation? I am not as absolute as Merisotis—that wouldn’t be right for a community foundation. But it does mean we can’t lose sight of the long view.
Even in the midst of the emergencies and harsh experiences stemming from four crises—when school-age clerks at supermarkets are taking extra shifts because they are home from school, deemed essential and their parents are out of work, when the line for food is nearly two thousand cars long, when leaders of color are packing up their kids and leaving town because they feel so unsafe from the hate that lives next door.
Even with these fires burning, our job is to balance our attention to those experiences and the fierce urgency of right now with our work on the root causes and the structures at the heart of the opportunity gap, inequity and the systemic failures that drive them.
We know how to take the long view: long after attention went elsewhere, the High Meadows Fund is still advancing key watershed and community resilience strategies informed by the lessons of Hurricane Irene ten years ago. That kind of attention over time is where progress lies. The long view means spending a decade to build a public consensus around the need for universal access to high quality early child-care in this state, as Let’s Grow Kids has done.
It means we need to take risks. Philanthropy can take risks that others can’t. Risks like a simple promise to pay for a single class at the community college for every Vermont high school graduate in 2020. With 650 registrations in place, we know the value of taking a risk. Thirty years in, the McClure family is still teaching us to give with warm hands.
Risk is the state’s largest private scholarship grantmaker, the Curtis Fund, adapting their strategy from traditional higher education and increasing funding for credentials of value that connect people to a skill and a job.
It also means listening and integrating what we hear and learn - building connection across community infrastructure from the unique, albeit imperfect and privileged, perspective of a community foundation—across formal and informal networks: public, private, for-profit, non-profit, civic, social, grassroots, grasstops and high level, state, local, federal – leadership and engagement must come from each of these in this moment and align to address what’s facing Vermont communities.
It means asking what it looks like for those communities, in all their complexity, to have a more active voice in the decisions about where charitable dollars go to work. There’s a saying in disaster management – the middle of an emergency is no time to exchange business cards.
These are big questions that we are committed to wrestling with.
To that end, we are focusing on the following high-level priorities in the coming year. These reflect both practical objectives and also our aspiration to advance the line in community philanthropy:
- Adapting to a sustained decentralized work environment
- Enhanced communications, including more frequent events and communications on emerging concepts and community insight
- Adapting our grantmaking program and community-advised programs to more effectively incorporate the voices of our neighbors’ lived experience
- Adapting our Opportunity Gap framework to expressly include the lessons of the pandemic and issues of racial equity
- Committing to assessing the entirety of our engagement with the financial sector as an investor, starting with a net impact review of our investment pools and proposing an increase to the Vermont investment pool allocation with a focus on women and BIPOC-owned enterprises.
The opportunity gap—our focus on systems for early childhood, youth development and support for working families, access to college and career training and economic vitality—it is all about organizing our thinking into a strategic framework—imperfect but modeled on national and state research.
If we start getting some of these systems right, we believe that people will see a tomorrow that looks better than today.
Equity and the creation of economic and community resilience has always been at the heart of that work. The experience of the pandemic and these past few months has only elevated that urgency.
We are an ambitious organization. Not for its own sake. We are ambitious in the belief that progress can be made and the act of giving feeds that belief. Our work over the last six months and the year prior reflects the increasing maturity of our systems thinking and problem-solving skills.
We know we can be effective in their pursuit. The experiences of our neighbors and what we see across Vermont communities and in the world around us tells us that we must aspire to be at least that.
These are hard times. There is a lot of fear out there about what tomorrow, next week, next month and next year will bring.
I believe the community foundation, composed of more than eight hundred different funds and interests and broadly but no doubt imperfectly reflective of the values of our state, has a responsibility to show a path forward.
These plans set the table for doing so. They lay the groundwork for better understanding and transparency around the entirety of our impact, including the impact of our investment pools and managed assets. They position our organization for enhanced community insight and understanding, problem-solving and systems change. Shifting the conditions that hold problems in place. That is our aspiration for community philanthropy and for our mission of increasing philanthropy in this state.
I have to thank Gaye Symington for making the observation that we are getting lots of practice in disruption. In that, what I wrote on Friday the 13 of March still rings true: In Vermont, even as we are asked to keep our distance, we will find a way to come together. I still believe that. Someday we’ll be together again - hopefully sooner rather than later – but in the meantime, we may be apart, but we stand shoulder to shoulder with each other on some big challenges. Thank you for being a part of this work and for joining us for this annual meeting.
Normally, we’d wrap up and wander over to the ice cream bar and have a chance to connect. Knowing that’s a rain check, please send any comments, questions, or feedback to my email: email@example.com.
Thanks to the team and staff that made this possible. This concludes our 2020 Annual Meeting.