Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

True change takes a leader with vision

By Wallis Annenberg
December 19, 2013 -- Updated 1334 GMT (2134 HKT)
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
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1938 GMT (0338 HKT)
SEATTLE, WA - SEPTEMBER 04: NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks the sidelines prior to the game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers at CenturyLink Field on September 4, 2014 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Martha Pease says the NFL commissioner shouldn't be judge and jury on player wrongdoing.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1315 GMT (2115 HKT)
It's time for a much needed public reckoning over U.S. use of torture, argues Donald P. Gregg.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1225 GMT (2025 HKT)
Peter Bergen says UK officials know the identity of the man who killed U.S. journalists and a British aid worker.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1128 GMT (1928 HKT)
Joe Torre and Esta Soler say much has been achieved since a landmark anti-violence law was passed.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1241 GMT (2041 HKT)
Jane Stoever: Society must grapple with a culture in which 1 in 3 teen girls and women suffer partner violence.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2211 GMT (0611 HKT)
Bill Clinton's speech accepting the Democratic nomination for president in 1992 went through 22 drafts. But he always insisted on including a call to service.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2218 GMT (0618 HKT)
Joe Amon asks: What turns a few cases of disease into thousands?
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2231 GMT (0631 HKT)
Analysts weigh in on the president's plans for addressing the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT