Andrea Levere SOM ’83 on Friday addressed 200 students and professionals on the grand wooden stage of the Yale School of Management’s Zhang Auditorium — a room she said did not exist in anyone’s imagination when she was a student at the SOM.

Levere, president and CEO of Prosperity Now, a private nonprofit organization with the mission of ensuring economic justice for all, was the keynote speaker at the 13th annual Yale Philanthropy Conference, an interdisciplinary forum for current and future leaders focused on the business of social change. The conference is organized by students at SOM, which has built a strong reputation for nonprofit business leadership education over the past few decades. This year’s conference was dedicated to the memory of Paul Connolly SOM ’91, a nonprofit leader and a longtime advisor to the Yale Philanthropy Conference, and focused on building a resilient nonprofit sector in response to the current social, economic and political climate in the United States.

“We are living in unprecedented times, and I do not say that lightly,” Levere said in her address. “While our federal government today is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before, that is not the only thing that is disrupting our lives. We are, in a lot of contexts, in a moment of demographic change, technological change, environmental issues and economic transformation [that are] disrupting every part of our lives and the communities we serve.”

Over the course of her address, Levere highlighted the extreme income inequality and socioeconomic disparities plaguing the United States. For instance, Levere pointed out that white households have roughly the same wealth as households of color earning three times as much income, suggesting that the national wealth gap is shaped by decades of racist policies, she said. She added that the rationale behind the new Republican tax law — which seems to imply that corporate profits will flow down to economically disadvantaged communities — is flawed and that such change could not be effected without concerted policy effort.

Levere, who at the time was one of few students with a background in community development to attend business school, credited the training she received at SOM for her ability to grapple with the questions of why markets create inequity that necessitates philanthropic intervention and how to make such efforts most effective. She emphasized the need to apply business best practices to the nonprofit sector, to respond to and influence policy and to work in an interdisciplinary manner across the public and private sectors to maximize the impact of philanthropic activity.

She also told the News that she was happy to return to SOM because of the commitment of many of its students to blend business with social justice.

The day’s activities also included panel discussions on various topics pertinent to the conference’s theme, as well as lunch-time programming, including roundtable discussions with the Yale Alumni Nonprofit Alliance and a session on fundraising strategy by CCS Fundraising, one of the event’s corporate sponsors. The afternoon’s keynote speaker was Aaron Dorfman, president and CEO of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, a research and advocacy organization that works to ensure the country’s grant-makers and wealthy donors are responsive to the needs of those with the least wealth, opportunity and power.

Dorfman told the News he was honored to be asked to speak at the conference and that he hoped the event would touch the hearts and minds of those in attendance. He added that good intentions are necessary but not sufficient for good philanthropy and that donors, who may be blinded by their privilege, ought to listen more to the communities affected by the problems they are trying to solve. He also called for people to donate toward all kinds of nonprofit organizations, not just universities.

“There are incredible nonprofit organizations working on important issues that are starved for cash, while many university endowments are flush,” Dorfman said. “I’d also like to see universities, Yale included, take a look at their investments. Yale is invested in some hedge funds that are doing more harm than good in the world. It runs counter to the school’s values.”

Flannery Berg SOM ’18, who organized the content for this year’s conference, said the keynote speakers, Levere and Dorfman, engaged the audience and left them with a clear call to action to support the country’s most marginalized people. She added that she was proud of all aspects of this year’s conference.

“I didn’t get to sit in on every panel, but the Toward Equity panel in the afternoon literally had the audience breaking out in applause and near tears as the panelists broke down some real hard-to-swallow realities about … the importance of listening to and supporting marginalized communities for the long haul, not just when an issue becomes the hot new topic on Facebook,” she said.

Alexia Gangotena SOM ’18, chair of marketing for the event, said she was pleased that many of this year’s professional attendees had never attended the conference before and brought new perspectives to the topics and themes discussed.

Tony Sheldon, executive director of the Program on Social Enterprise at the SOM and a faculty advisor for the conference, said the event was especially interesting to him because it brought together leaders not just from foundations and nonprofits but also from the private sector to grapple with the ways in which philanthropy is redefining itself and the role it plays both domestically and globally.

“It’s really a rare opportunity to engage with colleagues across sectors, across fields, across disciplines in a hopefully imaginative and enjoyable and productive way,” Sheldon said.

The Yale Philanthropy Conference grew out of “Philanthropic Foundations,” a class at SOM. This year’s advisory board included several Yale alumni, including Emary Aronson, Patrice Cromwell SOM ’88, Caroline Kronley SOM ’07, Neela Pal SOM ’13 and Melanie Torres SOM ’11. The 2018 iteration of the conference was sponsored by the Newman’s Own Foundation, the J.M. Kaplan Fund and CCS Fundraising.

Saumya Malhotra |