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2013 JAG Special Leadership Award Goes to Michael Fleming, Executive Director of the David Bohnett Foundation

On December 5, the Joint Affinity Groups (JAG) awarded Michael Fleming, Executive Director of the David Bohnett Foundation, with the 2013 JAG of Southern California Special Leadership Award.

The JAG Special Leadership Award is given to leaders who use their influence in their own organization–and the broader philanthropic field–to make a positive change for inclusiveness.

JAG of Southern California is comprised of Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy, Funders for LGBTQ Issues, Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, Hispanics in Philanthropy and Southern California Blacks in Philanthropy.

See Michael's comments below:

Remarks upon receipt of the 2013 Special Leadership Award from the Southern California's Joint Affinity Group<>

December 5, 2013, JAG Holiday Reception at The California Endowment, Downtown Los Angeles


© Michael Fleming, December, 2013. Not to be reproduced without permission.

Thank you, Mitch. And thanks to the members of the Joint Affinity Group and Southern California Grantmakers for this great honor.

Of course, I need to share this with my colleagues from the David Bohnett Foundation. Especially, Paul Moore our Program Officer and our Controller, Liz Atherton, both of whom are here this evening.

David Bohnett is in New York tonight and I know that he wishes he could be here. Not just because he’d be pleased that we are being recognized by our peers, but because he knows that the JAG and SCG represent the very best of what philanthropy means to Los Angeles.

David built his business GeoCities into one of the earliest and most popular social networking sites online. Even though he has an MBA, the genesis of GeoCities didn’t come from a marketing or finance class, but from David’s experience as a young gay man about the power of communities and empowering those – especially so many of those represented by folks in this room – to play an inclusive and comprehensive role in the fabric of Los Angeles.

Now, I noticed with more than a passing interest that this award is a Leadership award, not a philanthropy award. And I think that is significant.

Leadership is “the” buzzword of our time. I was at LAX last night and with just a quick scan of the books store there you can find hundreds of books on leadership. From corporate titans like Sheryl Sandburg and Bill Gates to every politician imaginable from Rudy Giuliani to Madeline Albright. Spiritual icons from the Dali Lama to Pope Francis and even fictional characters like Walter White and Tony Soprano. All of them have books on leadership.

It’s part of our fast-food, instant gratification culture, perhaps. Read this book and in 10 easy steps you too can become a leader. And it plays into a larger narrative, one that we in the nonprofit world and especially the social justice movement too often fall for the search for a “leader” to do all the work. How often do we hear “if only we had a leader." “What this community needs is leadership." "Who is our next transformational leader?”

If only this one amazing person would come forward then all of our challenges would be so much easier and in reality – they’d do all the heavy lifting and we could just take a bit of a break.

From the books on that bookstore shelf to profiles in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, I think we are just a bit confused about what leadership actually means. What it is, who are leaders?

If I surveyed this room we’d have hundreds of definitions all valid, of course. The one that most resonates with me is that “leadership is the ability to disappoint your constituents at the rate they can withstand.” Again - “leadership is the ability to disappoint your constituents at the rate they can withstand.”

So how does that play into our work as philanthropists and foundation directors? Who are our constituents? Our donors? Our grantees? The communities we associate ourselves with – or seek to represent? And how are we disappointing them – and why?

There are 77,000 foundations across this nation and thousands right here in greater Los Angeles with funds that have flowed from some really bold, imaginative, and creative people, but far too often the giving has become tired and stale. Too many have become what I like to call “promiscuous philanthropists." They simply give to the first person who asks.

And then there are others whose giving is so narrow and who demand “performance metrics” and statistical analysis so rigorous that even the most efficient grantee can’t meet their test.

And lost in the middle - hundreds of innovative ground breaking non-profits – who are bringing novel solutions to some of our most pressing issues, but who find themselves unable to navigate our all-too-often circuitous giving rules and regulations.

We have major problems here folks. From childhood obesity, to homelessness, to the scourge of gun violence and the routine denial of fundamental civil rights to our most vulnerable brothers and sisters.

These are BIG problems and we especially the smaller foundations can no longer have a narrative that says “well, we’ll just leave these major challenges up to the Endowment or Eli or Wallis.”

Look around this room. How many people do you know, really know? How much do you know about their giving? How hard have you tried to partner with them to take on a new challenge, or cause , or concern?

Now, more than ever, we need to come together. Not just over an open bar, but to work across our sometimes narrowly defined funding areas to make grants and provide technical assistance even when - or perhaps ESPECIALLY WHEN – it challenges us and makes us - and our donors - uncomfortable.

Relationships are primary and everything else is secondary. Not contacts, not networking, but relationships. And we need to start building those relationships today because these challenges aren’t getting any smaller.

I hope that in this season of giving thanks, of looking back for lessons learned and forward for inspiration, we can all commit to making 2014 the year when we tear down some of these artificial funding barrier not just for the sake of our city and our grantees, but because it is simply the right thing to do.

And then next year when we gather here we can all point to having exercised more leadership - bold, brave, uncomfortable leadership – and maybe, just maybe, we’ll have changed the landscape of Los Angeles and disappointed our constituents a little less.

Thank you.