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A foundation trustee, a young nonprofit ED, and a lobbyist walk into a hotel…: 10 Provocative Thoughts from IS (Part I)

2012 Independent Sector Conference

Our country is shaken. Our sector is anxious. Disparity is growing. Apathy is the norm. And we’re grasping for a new social compact.

It’s a tough time to be working in the nonprofit and philanthropic community.  It’s also a thrilling time. More than ever, we need to think creatively, build innovative solutions to social problems, and grow, grow, grow what’s working.  This tension between fear and fervor catapulted throughout the walls of this year’s Independent Sector conference, making for an exhilarating, poignant and provoking gathering of our nation’s top social sector thinkers and doers.

The following ideas stuck most vividly in my head.  I’ve included 5 below and will include 5 more in another post next week:

1. Don’t collaborate for the sake of collaboration. Don’t collaborate just because the New York Times wrote an article about “Collective Impact.” Collaborate when the act of collaboration is a necessaryingredient in the creation of the intended results. All too often funders and grantees alike try to fit their work into the buzzword framework of the day. But frameworks by themselves do not create or guarantee positive social change.  Collaboration is costly – it nearly always takes more time, energy, and money than originally planned.  If the cost is $1+$1=$2.50, the social impact better be at least 1+1=2.75.

~ thoughtprops to: Paul Grogan (The Boston Foundation) and Emmett Carson (The Silicon Valley Community Foundation).

2. Nonprofit brands are collisions between mission and organization. A brand naturally transforms a nonprofit or a foundation into a “product.”  Brands are designed to create a “perceived value” in the mind of consumers that distinguishes one product from another.  Consequently, in branding an organization, the organization itself can start to overshadow the organization’s mission (the change the organization seeks to create in the world).  To fight against this, the best nonprofit brands are promises. The “product” is the “promise” that the organization will deliver on its mission.

~ thoughtprops to: Clarissa Quinn (The Ford Foundation)

3. “We cannot talk about meritocracy until we create a society of equal opportunity.” Dan Cardinali punched home the blistering reality that we live in a country rife with gaps in opportunity. We can get lost in the hubbub of “scaling what works” and “rewarding the high performers,” but we cannot forget that we live in a country defined by disparity. (Did you know? Our income distribution more closely resembles Iran and Uganda than it does Norway or Brazil.)

~ quoteprops to: Dan Cardinali (Communities in Schools)

4. If we don’t define what effective, impactful nonprofits look like, then the market will define it for us. And the market likes the simplicity of overhead percentages. As a sector, we’ve been complaining for years about the unfair and misinformed use of program-versus-overhead spending percentages by the public (i.e., donors) and by charity ratings sites (e.g., CharityNavigator). We say that crunching the financial numbers of nonprofits gives no true insight into their effectiveness at creating positive social change. And that’s true. But we have not been able to produce a standard, reliable, uniform, understandable, and simple alternative to “10% overhead = good; anything else = bad.”

~ thoughtprops to: Stephen Pratt (Root Cause)

5. “Measure what matters most.” But also remember that what you measure can become what matters (for better or worse). The surging call within the social sector for more data-driven decision making, evidence-based practices, and setting measureable objectives is a fantastic step in the right direction.  But making sure that we are incredibly careful about the metrics we focus on is critical.  Facebook could measure its success in its number of users, the number of items shared on the platform, or the amount of advertising revenue… Importantly, each of these different definitions of success would lead to different priorities, incentives, decisions, etc. We have to be careful to choose metrics that best help us measure our progress toward achieving our organizations’ missions, but we also have to be careful not to let the metrics overtake the mission in importance.

~ thoughtprops to: Jason Saul (Mission Measurement)

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Will DeKrey

About Will DeKrey

As Manager of Networks & Knowledge, Will DeKrey oversees the curation, synthesis and sharing of knowledge within Community Wealth Partners and with external stakeholders in order to advance our collective understanding of how to solve problems at the magnitude they exist. Prior to this role, Will served on the consulting team at Community Wealth Partners. Will was a 1st Place Winner of the National Conference on Citizenship’s 2012 Civic Data Challenge. See Will’s full bio

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