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 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT