It is one of the most coveted positions in the nonprofit world: president of the Aspen Institute. And it now belongs to Dan Porterfield.
Porterfield, who spent the last seven years as the president of Franklin & Marshall College, officially takes the reins of the Aspen Institute June 1, replacing Walter Isaacson. He becomes the 12th president of the think tank and idea incubator, founded by Walter Paepcke in 1949. Porterfield will oversee the Institute’s far-flung global endeavors, including campuses in Aspen and on the Wye River in Maryland, as well as offices in Washington, D.C., and New York City, and help with affiliate partnerships around the world. “This is a dream opportunity, to come to Aspen, Colo., for the Aspen Ideas Festival, and all sorts of other cultural work,” he says. “To get to know the Aspen community and learn about the programs and services that benefit young people is really exciting.”
The annual gathering of the intellectual elite for the Aspen Ideas Festival is the most visible and impactful event on the Institute’s calendar. “In the state of the country today, clearly one of the greatest resources a nonprofit organization can provide is to bring people together for open dialogue, respectful engagement, productive disagreement and for the opportunity to feel an expansiveness of community,” he says. “And that’s what the Aspen Ideas Festival does, not only in Aspen every summer, but it helps the Institute do that year-round.”
Though many, especially in Aspen, think that producing the AIF is the sole purpose of the Institute, it is really more like the trunk of the proverbial aspen tree whose many branches spread wide. “There are about 10 international partner Aspen Institutes around the world,” he says. The network ranges from Europe to Japan to India. “I look forward to learning about their work and perhaps trying to find an integrative theme that will allow Aspen Global to have a shared identity.” The Aspen Institute employs just under 500 people and reported over $128 million in revenues for 2016.
Porterfield will be based in the D.C. offices of the Institute and spend his summer months in Aspen. “There is a tremendous opportunity for the Aspen Institute to make a difference across the country by using D.C. as its hub for its policy work and some of its leadership formation,” he says. “The co-headquarters, I guess I would call it, in Aspen, is this extraordinary resource for convening and for giving people the opportunity, as a part of our programs, to do their best intellectual work. It’s a setting that can clear the mind and allow colleagues to really talk to one another.”
He, like Isaacson, was a Rhodes scholar at Oxford and has spent the bulk of his career in academia, holding previous positions at Georgetown University and working with government on education projects. “I had 20 years of leadership experience managing large, complex universities that serve both students and the broader public, and treasure ideas and dialogue.”
And, also like his predecessor, Porterfield maintains lofty aspirations for the future of the Institute, which will turn 70 in 2019. “The Aspen Institute’s purpose is to create the conditions to further human flourishing,” he says. “Our stakeholders are everyday people who are interested in having a society where children are educated well, where there is public health and public safety, where jobs are developed that respond to the talents of tomorrow’s young people and where people can count on the institutions in their lives to have integrity.”
A purpose worth coveting.