Keeping the Conversation Going

J.B. SullivanAs a principal at Portland Global Advisors, J.B. Sullivan is aware of the importance of listening to his clients -- and recognizing that the conversation around philanthropy is often long-term. Speaking with Jennifer Southard, vice president, donor services and gift planning at the Maine Community Foundation, Sullivan touches on recent trends in the way people think about giving and the importance of change.

MaineCF: We recently held a focus group with professional advisors. Would you talk a bit about some of the ideas discussed there?

J.B Sullivan: As financial advisors, our job is to help individuals and families manage their wealth, so we try to engage clients in a broad conversation about what’s important to them. It was clear [from the focus group] that a lot of advisors are thinking about the same thing: the importance of engaging people in the concept of charitable giving.

MaineCF: Are there ways that have worked well to prompt that conversation?

Sullivan: We try to ask relevant questions, particularly with new clients as we try to get to know them. And you’ve got to keep engaging them in that conversation because things change—in the market, in their world view, or health situation. Three or four years from now they might be ready to explore different opportunities in philanthropy. We can’t know that unless we’re talking to them—and listening.

MaineCF: Have you noticed any trends or emerging issues?

Sullivan: I’ve seen a real change in the last few years. Financial stress has led many of clients to think about their giving in a different way, including how they invest their dollars. People want to understand more intimately what’s happening at an organization to which they’re thinking of giving money.

MaineCF: Would you talk about your relationship with the community foundation and what it has meant to you?

Sullivan: I grew up in Freeport and have had a business in Portland for many years, so my world view has been more or less centered on southern Maine. The foundation board retreats were eye-opening: spending several days in communities like Limestone or Eastport and finding out what’s going on, both the progress and the struggles.

MaineCF: You serve on the community foundation’s Investment Committee. Any thoughts on that aspect of our work?

Sullivan: As good as the community foundation’s investment performance has been, I don’t think that is why people should turn to you. What sets you apart is the knowledge of communities, the Maine connection, the “Buy Local” philosophy. The community foundation can make that connection between a donor with a specific interest and a nonprofit that’s doing really cool things in that field. A great trait of the community foundation has been its willingness to change. It’s not a static place. There has always been that culture to challenge the conventional way of doing things.

J.B. Sullivan is a founder of Portland Global Advisors; prior to that, he was vice president of Lehman Brothers in New York. He served on the Maine Community Foundation’s Board of Directors for nine years and is a longtime member of its Investment Committee. He is currently a trustee of the Gulf of Maine Research Center and a member of the investment committee at the Elmina B. Sewall Foundation. A graduate of Amherst College, Sullivan lives in Yarmouth with his wife, Wendy, and their four children.