Why you should care

Getting better results from nonprofits could mean less hunger, less disease and a cleaner environment — and that’s just for starters.

In the land of charitable giving, its reigning queen is having a little trouble with her kingdom.

Three years ago, in a bold but off-the-mainstream-radar move, an innocuous former head of an environmental group with a pleasant enough manner and blond locks took over the largest trade group for charities (quick, can you name it?). But she seems to have charged in with Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s ambitions — and toughness — as president and CEO of the Council on Foundations. Since then she has managed to alienate most of her staff and some charitable leaders as well. The question is: Could all of Vikki Spruill’s knocking of heads be a good thing for do-gooders?

The world of her trade group, with about 1,600 foundations and charities in the U.S., is as important as any. After all, we are talking about the people who are trying to solve everything from world hunger to disease to a polluted environment. And the size of this sector is bigger than you might think, with 1.43 million tax-exempt charities boasting $1.65 trillion in revenue in 2012, according to the National Center for Charitable Statistics.

Like Mayer, Spruill, 57, inherited a fixer-upper: shrinking membership, declining income, bloated staff and a widespread feeling that the organization, founded in 1949, no longer served the essential needs of the philanthropic community. “The business model was to be all things to all people,” Spruill tells OZY, which made it impossible for the council to provide essential leadership.

Spruill came in with an ax, chopping the staff from 76 on arrival to 51 today. Amid new hires, only about a quarter of the original staff survived. “She has alienated community foundations and small independent foundations,” says Pablo Eisenberg, a columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

When we meet her at her Arlington, Virginia, office, which overlooks the nation’s capital, Spruill is as engaging and warm as she is articulate and calls herself a “pragmatic activist.” Hired on a mission of “change,” Spruill says she quickly discovered that “they like the thought of change until it starts to happen.” She believes there’s waste in this sector, and despite having a background in public relations, Spruill speaks out against the trend toward “branding” by nonprofits, essentially a competitive fundraising tool that can set up barriers to pooling resources. It’s the mission that matters, and that’s how she is directing the council’s meetings and other activities.

Her winding road to queenhood of charities goes back, as she retells it, to high school. In those days (the early ’70s), she was still considering marine biology when a friendly high school teacher advised her that science had no place for women. So she veered off in another direction: public relations. Yet the call of the ocean was too hard to resist when, in 1995, the Pew Charitable Trusts contacted her. The program she was invited to head, which became SeaWeb, aimed to unpack the vast complexity of the world’s largest ecosystem — covering 71 percent of the planet — into policy and action that might help keep the oceans healthy.

She’s a confident leader, and she does not mind criticism.

Kevin Murphy, president of the Berks County Community Foundation

Not unlike Mayer, Spruill arrived to revitalize her new endeavor, an aging hulk of a former pioneer, but she just can’t seem to satisfy her critics. Eisenberg faults Spruill’s financial management, pointing out that she’s running on a deficit. He doesn’t trust the business plan to turn things around. He calls her wrong for the job “in temperament and vision.”

Yet Spruill is unfazed, saying she never expected to please all members accustomed to the old way of doing business and that the financial plan will take time to show success. Meanwhile, she has a $10 million reserve fund to see it through, and despite the criticism, 90 percent of her members have stayed on board, says Kevin Murphy, president of the Berks County Community Foundation and former chair of the Council on Foundations. “She’s a confident leader, and she does not mind criticism,” he says. “I think she has laid out a strategy that shows exactly what the council needs to do to move forward.”

Spruill knows all about moving forward. The former Army brat grew up in a dizzying array of places — from Paris to Pensacola, Florida, to Japan. Then she married her college sweetheart and has led the life of a settled-in suburban professional mom with two grown daughters. She runs (there’s a half-marathon in March), gardens, retreats to a house in Nantucket, Massachusetts, and braves the District of Columbia’s horrible traffic every day going to work.

But that commute is relatively easy compared with her job, which is complicated by the industry’s size and diversity, with the council’s membership including everything from giants like the Ford Foundation and Carnegie Corp. to the tiny Missoula Community Foundation, whose tax return showed it gave away just $10,000 during 2013. She touts the pursuit of the “common good” — nonprofits pursue everything imaginable, from education reform and poverty reduction to simply helping their communities — but it’s often hard to measure success. And the IRS lacks resources to carefully police the sector, to prevent, for example, excessive salaries for staff (paid with tax-exempt money), misuse of funds or very low spending on programs.

Spruill can’t fix all of that, of course. But in addition to the council’s traditional role of lobbying Congress, training nonprofit leaders and setting industry standards, she has her eye on helping organizations achieve results by working together, in part through a new site called Philanthropy Exchange, in which community foundations working to help veterans, for example, can exchange information and use the council’s connections to federal agencies.

By 2016, the membership will feel another shock — through a revamping of the dues system so that big foundations will no longer subsidize small ones. The little guys will have to pay more. It won’t look like the same organization. Then again, that’s the idea.

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