Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

True change takes a leader with vision

By Wallis Annenberg
updated 8:34 AM EST, Thu December 19, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Wallis Annenberg: Many donate to charities, but for extraordinary leaders, giving means more
  • She says CNN Heroes have vision and provide vital help instead of wringing their hands
  • Annenberg Foundation is focusing on supporting leaders in its philanthropy
  • Watch "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute" on Saturday, December 7 at 9 p.m. ET/PT

Editor's note: Wallis Annenberg is chairman of the board of the Annenberg Foundation. The Annenberg Foundation is providing training to this year's Top 10 CNN Heroes.

(CNN) -- For many of us, the holiday season is a time to count our blessings -- and then open our hearts and our checkbooks to those who have far less than we do. But for a handful of extraordinary leaders, giving means something more.

It means committing their entire beings to bettering the lives of others. It means looking at the most wrenching problems all around them and saying it doesn't have to be this way. And it means innovating -- truly leading -- to find new solutions to our oldest and most vexing challenges.

Modifying the homes of disabled veterans so they can live fuller, more productive lives. Creating vital support and transportation networks for children undergoing chemotherapy. Providing free medical care in the jungles of Cameroon, where it's not just unattainable, it's often unheard of. Launching a mobile computer lab to help low-income students in Palm Beach County keep up with essential, job-sustaining technologies.

Wallis Annenberg
Wallis Annenberg

These are just some of the ways in which the CNN Heroes are embodying the very best of giving and philanthropy. At a time of government dysfunction and global economic turmoil, these women and men aren't wringing their hands. They're rolling up their sleeves and getting the job done -- quietly, courageously, all around the world.

How can we support and encourage even more of these efforts? In my time as a philanthropist, I've thought a great deal about this issue. And I've found that while money is, of course, essential, in the end it has surprisingly little to do with effective philanthropy. Leadership is the key ingredient. That's why we've stopped focusing our giving on needs and started focusing it much more on leadership. I believe the future of philanthropy depends on this shift -- on a leadership-based approach to solving our public problems.

CNN Hero cleans up America's rivers
CNN Hero saves kids from the streets
CNN Heroes: From the Red Carpet
CNN Hero helps disabled war veterans

The truth is, virtually all of the more than 1.5 million nonprofits in America are trying to meet important needs. At the Annenberg Foundation, I've rarely questioned the need of a nonprofit that came to us for help. But need isn't enough. Need doesn't get the job done. Need doesn't inspire others to follow your example. Need doesn't break out of the often-stale approaches of the past. Vision does. True dynamism in an organization does.

What do I mean when I use the word "vision?" I mean people like the CNN Heroes, who look at an old problem and immediately see it in a brand new way. People who think far beyond our day-to-day crises, as important as they are, and think about how their work will shape and sustain a community for the long haul. People who understand their work as a cause, even a calling -- and can rally others to embrace it.

To me, vision is nothing less than a road map to the future. And if you have a real vision, you can outlast and outperform those with far greater resources and support. Which is why visionaries tend to be good philanthropic investments.

Of course, vision means little if you can't run an effective nonprofit. That's why we also look for dynamic organizations -- ones that aren't weighted down by bureaucracy and turf wars, and in particular, ones in which the board and the executive director are working hand in hand. Without the red tape and the interoffice battles, they deliver better and more meaningful results. It sounds simple, but you'd be surprised how elusive this can be.

At the Annenberg Foundation, we don't just go looking for these kinds of strong, leadership-driven nonprofits. We try to nurture and grow them as well. That's why we created the Annenberg Alchemy program, which we are offering free to all current and past CNN Heroes.

Alchemy has already trained over 1,400 nonprofit leaders in this country, helping them approach their work with a greater sense of vision and helping them build closer bonds between their boards and their executive management, so their effectiveness can match their level of need.

So if you want your own charitable dollars to have the greatest impact, don't just write checks to a worthy cause. Support the people and organizations that are actually leading us forward. I believe that's the best way to create a stronger, fairer, more just world. And that's something we can all embrace, this and every holiday season.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Wallis Annenberg.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:24 PM EDT, Sat September 20, 2014
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
updated 7:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
updated 5:47 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
updated 9:02 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
updated 11:44 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
updated 11:01 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
updated 9:57 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
updated 11:47 AM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
updated 3:58 PM EDT, Fri September 19, 2014
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
updated 2:31 PM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
updated 10:27 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
updated 10:48 AM EDT, Thu September 18, 2014
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
updated 7:15 PM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
updated 8:34 PM EDT, Wed September 17, 2014
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue September 16, 2014
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
updated 1:23 PM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT