Thursday, June 6, 2013
by Michael Gilligan, President, Henry Luce Foundation
Everyone expects to mark their milestones — birthdays, anniversaries — and foundations are no exception. So when the Henry Luce Foundation’s 75th anniversary year loomed on our horizon, we experienced that familiar celebration anxiety. What and how much should we do? Who would be involved? Recovering from the global economic downturn, what was possible, cost-effective and appropriate? Though these and many more questions began as an exercise in logistics and planning, they quickly moved us into deeper territory. What did this anniversary mean for the Foundation? Were we still on our designated path? How could we describe the path today? And where is it headed in the future?
The Luce Foundation’s grants are organized according to seven formal programs, with initiatives and subject areas that are quite diverse. So our “celebration” process quickly morphed into a series of rangy conversations among staff, board and constituents — conversations that fostered introspection, evaluation and communication. Our set of programs has occasionally been likened to “beads on a string.” To celebrate our anniversary, we realized that we must create a conversation about “the string.”
And so the board and staff began to explore what it is we all hold in common — what commitments and strategies link our programs. We invited speakers. We held some small events that were closely tied to our programs. We instituted an anniversary grant initiative, asking selected institutions to describe how their large-project goals matched our mission. And we published a book. The most obvious concrete result of our 18-month process, simply titled Henry Luce Foundation at 75 Years, it tells our story in a way that’s both illuminating and accessible. But more important to us than its publication were the dialogues we undertook and the ways in which those conversations strengthened us.
To create the book, we had to talk substantively and exhaustively about the Foundation’s intrinsic qualities, as well as the depth and scope of our work. Our impact, we recognized, had more to do with our staying power than with our size. We arrived at five tenets that we believe define us: advancing knowledge, strengthening international understanding, fostering innovation, building bridges and promoting leadership. In identifying these beacons, we were surprised to realize that we’d actually begun a strategic planning process and happily confirmed that all of us — staff and board — are on the same page.
We also realized something very important: What we value most is learning — our own and that of our grantees. That insight has left us energized and confident. The book is on the lobby table, and our 75th Anniversary year has come and gone. But, with renewed vigor, the work goes on.