The State of Philanthropy—and What Comes Next: A Conversation with Grant Oliphant

The State of Philanthropy—and What Comes Next: A Conversation with Grant Oliphant


November 2023

The State of Philanthropy—and What Comes Next: A Conversation with Grant Oliphant

During the latest installment of Conversations on Philanthropy hosted by the USC Price School’s Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy, Conrad Prebys Foundation CEO Grant Oliphant shared insights from his years of leading organizations with different models of philanthropy — a major community foundation, a large regional legacy foundation and now an emerging foundation.

Cinny Kennard — executive director of The Annenberg Foundation and chair of The Center’s Board of Advisors — engaged Oliphant in a discerning exchange about both the current state and the future of philanthropy. During their conversation on September 19, 2023, these seasoned leaders discussed rebuilding after COVID, articulating an inspiring vision, listening to the community, elevating diverse voices and striving to reach common ground on significant societal issues.

Oliphant joined The Conrad Prebys Foundation, San Diego’s largest independent foundation, in March 2022 after previously serving as president of The Heinz Endowments and president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Foundation. In addition to his regional leadership, he has also played a major role in the national philanthropy landscape as chair of the Communications Network and the Center for Effective Philanthropy, two of its most influential infrastructure organizations.

After noting that Pittsburgh is home to one of the nation’s most fully formed philanthropic communities, where “people collaborate as if it’s in their DNA,” Oliphant said he was drawn to The Prebys Foundation “in part by the opportunity to stand up an entirely new foundation that operates independently with a community board.” Because San Diego is at early stages in establishing a strong philanthropic community, Oliphant said he is excited to set a template for what philanthropy can mean to that city’s future.

That focus on community remained a dominant theme throughout the talk. Early in their conversation, Kennard asked Oliphant about the long-term impact of the pandemic on community nonprofits.

“I think we have all learned that certain things that we took for granted about the nonprofit sector prior to COVID, we can no longer take for granted,” he said. “I underestimated the extent to which simple rebuilding would be so difficult and still be playing out in so many profound ways three years later.” As an example, he noted that the post-pandemic survivability of arts institutions is still unclear.

Kennard asked Oliphant to expand upon a blog post he wrote for The Heinz Foundation in March 2020. In it, he discussed the prevailing leadership culture of “no, but” — an instinctive reaction to reject change — rather than “yes, and” — which, like improvisational theater, takes a new idea as a starting point to build upon.

At the time, he was encouraging those in the philanthropy community to accept the uncertainty surrounding COVID and figure out appropriate actions based on that new reality. He added that the “yes, and” approach had been invaluable to him even before the pandemic for addressing other types of issues. “Those of us working in philanthropy are inevitably going to keep finding ourselves facing new crises and challenges,” he explained.

Oliphant referenced numerous long-term crises that are not new but worsening — from youth mental health and climate change to the perils facing our democracy. He also noted a significant generational shift in how people view the appropriate responses to such challenges.

He added that those in philanthropy will fail if they can’t do two things — articulate a clear and compelling vision through effective storytelling, and do a better job of listening to the community, “elevating different voices and engaging a set of grantees that we haven’t been as committed to in the past as we should be in the future.”

At The Conrad Prebys Foundation, for instance, he has launched an initiative for healthcare clinics that focused on border regions and indigenous communities — which had not traditionally been targeted for grantmaking — because they were on the front lines working with those most in need and experiencing the greatest barriers.

“I hear a different conversation among philanthropy today than I did five years ago,” he said. “It starts at a different place, around the central supposition of who should be in the room, about who has voice or the right to have voice. There needs to be a very deliberative process of letting go, letting others in. It’s not speaking for the community but taking the time to let the community speak for itself.”

It also involves asking the right questions, he added, sharing another early example from his work at The Prebys Foundation. He and his team talked with medical research scientists about the problems they were struggling with where sufficient funding remained elusive. A theme emerged: Major research institutions in San Diego, a font for breakthroughs in the life sciences, were having difficulty retaining female scientists. As Oliphant and his team dug deeper, it became clear that the problem was particularly acute among mid-career researchers who are women of color, so the foundation established a fellowship to help address the issue.

When asked by Kennard about how the philanthropic community is becoming more vocal on the hot-button topic of pluralism, Oliphant said, “to fix the problems of our society, you absolutely have to look at the wrongs of the past and figure out how to undo them and address systemic inequities.” He emphasized the importance of civil discourse on the topic and the need to come together to reach common ground.

“I believe that our sector can display strong moral leadership and courage about racial equity and systemic inequities — and at the same time welcome dialogue within the community about different ways of fixing those problems,” he said. “Part of the role of philanthropy is helping our society figure out productive ways forward in addressing these issues.”

“Grant Oliphant was the ideal speaker to kick off this academic year and share insights on where philanthropy has been, and where it’s headed next,” said James Ferris, PhD, Center director and the Emery Evans Olson Chair in Nonprofit Entrepreneurship and Public Policy at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy. “His inspiring conversation with Cinny Kennard provided foresight about what’s around the corner and will fuel further discussion around these important topics.”

The Conversations on Philanthropy series brings together key thinkers and decision-makers from philanthropy, nonprofit organizations, government, business and the academic community for intimate discussions that consider the role of philanthropy in addressing specific challenges facing our communities.


The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy promotes more effective philanthropy and strengthens the nonprofit sector through research that informs philanthropic decision-making and public policy to advance community problem solving. The Center is a part of the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy, which works to improve the quality of life for people and their communities, here and abroad.

For more information: Please contact Bhanu Anton Cruz, Senior Associate Director, The Center on Philanthropy & Public Policy, at [email protected] or 213-740-1776.