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The Role of the Independent Sector: An Interview with Dan Cardinali

By Nell Edgington



Dan CardinaliIn this month’s Social Velocity interview I’m talking with Dan Cardinali, the new president and CEO of Independent Sector, a national membership organization that brings together nonprofits, foundations, and corporations to advance the common good.

Prior to leading Independent Sector, Dan was the president of Communities In Schools, the nation’s largest dropout prevention organization, with operations in 26 states and the District of Columbia. While there he led efforts to develop and advance an evidence-based model of integrated student service provision and launched a national growth strategy to increase the organization’s impact on improving public education. He is a 2007 Annie E. Casey Children and Families Fellow, serves as a trustee for America’s Promise, and is on the board of Child Trends. In May 2011 he was appointed by President Barack Obama to the Presidential Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics. He is also a member of the Leap Ambassador Community of nonprofit and philanthropic leaders.

You can read interviews with other social change leaders in the Social Velocity interview series here.

Nell: You have just become the new head of Independent Sector (IS). In a diverse and growing nonprofit sector that includes many ecosystem organizations like Independent Sector, what do you think the value proposition is for IS? What is the unique role that IS can and should be playing?

Dan: We were founded by John Gardner who was of the sector and believed deeply in the importance of the sector. It was distinct from government and the for-profit sector and uniquely positioned to support the American project. It played a unique and critical role to sustain American democracy and was also a source of profound community co-creation, rising up to provide really good solutions where there were problems and innovating to help communities evolve and grow, and supporting culture and defending the environment. At a time when civil society is shrinking around the world, the independent sector has an even more important role to play.

As for our capital I, capital S organization’s value proposition, we are unique in the country in spanning the sector. We hold the entirety of the grant seeking and grant making organizations and that purview we want to steward very carefully and thoughtfully. We want to be hyper disciplined in a world where there are a number of infrastructure organizations doing really good work, not to duplicate but align and leverage through collaboration. But there are still holes in our estimation in the landscape of what the sector needs. So we are going to remain disciplined in our role as an organization that is sector spanning and national in scope, grounded deeply in community, to determine what we do to add value to the original vision for a more robust social sector.

Nell: Independent Sector can potentially play a unique role because it stands at the intersection between nonprofits and those who fund nonprofits. Is there a bigger role for IS to play in bringing those two sides closer together, breaking down the power dynamic and helping more money to flow to effective organizations? If so what does that look like?

Dan: We are playing a role and part of it is modeling that these are two sides of the same coin – grant seekers can’t exist without grant makers and grant makers can’t get along without grant seekers. It would be naïve to pretend that those with financial resources don’t have an advantage, yet I equally think in the social sector that grant seekers at times abdicate the power that comes with knowing what they know to be effective and owning that. The opportunity exists to partner with grant makers, not just in the transactional sense, but in the co-creation of solutions to ensure that culture flourishes and that the environment is protected and flourishes, and that problems are solved.

In the Threads conversations IS convened with more than 80 partners across the U.S., concerns about the power dynamic were voiced at every stop. In response, IS and member organizations and experts are cooperating to model the best strategies for working together. We need to refocus the relationship on bringing the needed human, financial, and intellectual resources to bear, calling all people of good will to a higher purpose, rather than organizational sustainability.

Nell: Recently 22 nonprofit infrastructure organizations (like GuideStar, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, etc.) wrote a public letter urging foundations to invest more in infrastructure organizations. Independent Sector was not one of the 22 organizations, but what are your thoughts on their argument and how does, or should, Independent Sector fit in?

Dan: What was encouraging about that letter from very reputable organizations is that it opened up a conversation. The philanthropic community has a role, an obligation, to support effective infrastructure organizations, and we have a responsibility to be effective. But IS will not be in a position to request that support without a discussion of what needs doing, how well we all are doing it, and how can we better leverage each other’s work. I am passionate about this topic, and I appreciate that this letter advanced the conversation. I expect IS will partner closely in the future conversations.

Nell: You come to IS after many years at the helm of Communities In Schools, which moved during your tenure to a very evidence-based approach. Do you see IS moving itself and/or helping the sector as a whole to move toward a more evidenced-based approach?

Dan: What we did at CIS was to create a virtuous circle between our programs and practice and our data and research to continually generate insights, make course corrections as needed, and build on success. This is how we roll. IS has been applying this approach for a long time. In the Threads conversations, we engaged practitioners using a credible analytic process. We listened to them, without presupposing what they would say, and we applied social science to produce a document, the Threads report. We then co-created a strategic framework that engages members and develops our partnership, just as we do with the IS conference coming up in November.

So the evidence-based approach is alive and well. Going forward we can look for ways to accelerate its use across the organization, through a thoughtful integration of technology and 21st century methods of engagement.

Photo Credit: Independent Sector

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About the Author: Nell Edgington is President of Social Velocity (www.socialvelocity.net), a management consulting firm leading nonprofits to greater social impact and financial sustainability. Social Velocity helps nonprofits grow their programs, bring more money in the door, and use resources more effectively. For more information, check out Social Velocity consulting services and clients.


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