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Independent Sector

Networks, Social Movements, and Civic Tech — Oh My!

Last week I was in Miami for the Independent Sector conference, one of the largest gatherings of nonprofit and philanthropic leaders in the country. I really enjoyed it, in particular a few sessions that really got me thinking. Rather than give you a play-by-play of the conference (which you can get by viewing the Twitter feed) I wanted to share some big ideas that came out of the conference for me.

network entrepreneursNetworks Are Critical to Social Change
I am obsessed lately with this idea of a network entrepreneur, so the session “Connecting with the Right Kind of Network” where a panel of 7 network entrepreneurs explained how they used networks to varying degrees to move their social change goals forward was fascinating. Anna Muoio from Monitor Institute kicked off the session with her research on how social change networks operate (her wheel of network types is on the right). Then network entrepreneurs like Julieta Garibay from United We Dream, Tina Gridiron from Lumina Foundation, Clayton Lord from Americans for the Arts, and Sean Thomas-Breitfeld from The Building Movement Project, among others described their work to bring people and organizations together to work toward common change goals. These network entrepreneurs demonstrated how effective networks, as opposed to siloed organizations, can be in creating large-scale, systemic change. I’ll have more on this, because (as I said) I’m obsessed.

campaign financeOur Political System is Broken
Trevor Potter from the Campaign Legal Center gave a riveting plenary about our broken money in politics system. He took us through some scary facts (like the one to the left) about how challenged our democracy is right now, including the fact that presidential campaign fundraising more than doubled from 2004 to 2008, only 158 families account for more than half of the donations to the 2016 election so far, and 59% of Americans think our political system is broken. Depressing, but also an incredible opportunity to create change.

But Smart People Are Working To Fix Government
And there is hope! As I have mentioned before, “civic tech” (using technology to improve government and civic engagement) is a burgeoning field. The “Civic Tech Lab” session at the conference showcased 6 different civic tech solutions. They included TurboVote, which makes it easier for people to know where/when/how to vote; Textizen, which allows local governments to better communicate with and serve their citizens; and Open Referral which makes local social service data more accessible and usable. There are some really exciting innovations in this space.

freedom to marryState-by-State Change Is a Solution
And finally, most exciting, was the “What Winning Looks Like” session from Freedom To Marry, the nonprofit organization instrumental in the state-by-state strategy to legalize gay marriage. Their incredibly innovative digital approach helped to change public opinion and make gay marriage legal across the country. Especially in a time when the federal political system seems so broken, their approach to social change can serve as an example of how an alternative state-by-state strategy can work to change minds and laws. In fact, since Freedom to Marry is going out of business (because they have achieved their mission, how cool is that?) they will relaunch their website later this month with tools and resources for other social movements to use in their own efforts. I love it!

Lots of interesting things to chew on. You’ll hear more about these big ideas soon because I’ve convinced several of the amazing changemakers I met at the conference to participate in upcoming Social Velocity interviews. So stay tuned!


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Why I’m Excited About the Independent Sector Conference

independent sector conferenceLater this month I will be heading to Miami for the annual Independent Sector conference. I haven’t been to this conference before, so it’ll be new for me. And I’m excited about it for a number of reasons.

First, former CEO of Independent Sector Diana Aviv spent the last six months on a “listening tour” talking to nonprofit leaders around the country to get a sense of the trends and challenges they face. She recently announced her departure from Independent Sector to lead Feeding America. This will be her last chance to report on what she’s learned and where the sector should focus moving forward. She’s gathered the data, and she’s on her way out, so I imagine she will have lots of interesting things to say.

Because of Aviv’s listening tour, Independent Sector has organized this year’s conference around six key trends she found shaping the sector: 1) Disruption from inequality and environmental degradation, 2) Greater ethnic diversity and new generations of leadership, 3)Technology transforming learning, gathering, and associations, 4)Swarms of individuals connecting with institutions, 5)Business becoming increasingly engaged in social and environmental issues, 6)New models for social welfare and social change.

Beyond these trends, I’m also excited about the conference because it will be one of the first large, national discussions about the Performance Imperative. Launched by the Leap Ambassadors earlier this year, this new definition of a high-performing nonprofit has certainly been shared and discussed widely (including on this blog), but this is one of the largest presentations of the PI among so many nonprofit and philanthropy leaders. It will be interesting to hear what they have to say about it.

The schedule also includes some fascinating breakout sessions, like the one where Hewlett Foundation’s Daniel Stid and GuideStar’s Jacob Harold will discuss nonprofit cost structures and why we need to Pay What It Takes to Get Results. Amen! And philanthropic visionary, Lucy Bernolz’s Future of Philanthropy session should be eye opening.

Finally, this conference will be an incredibly impressive gathering of 1,000+ thought leaders and social changemakers. There are so many people on the attendees list that I’d love to meet. Perhaps I can convince a few of them to participate in a future Social Velocity blog interview.

So that’s where I’ll be the last week in October. If you can’t make it, you can view the livestream here, or follow the Twitter stream #ISEmbarks2015. I’ll be Tweeting and blogging from the conference, as time allows. If you are planning to be there, let me know, I’d love to see you!

Photo Credit: Independent Sector

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Can the Nonprofit Sector Stand Up for Itself?

There is something really interesting going on in the world of nonprofit advocacy. And I don’t mean advocacy for a specific cause. Rather, I’m talking about advocating for the nonprofit sector as a whole. Three new efforts underway in recent months are vying to be the voice of the nonprofit sector. And the firestorm brewing is interesting to watch.

Robert Egger kicked it off a year ago when he formed CForward an advocacy organization that champions the economic role of the nonprofit sector and supports political candidates who include the nonprofit sector in their plans to rebuild the economy. You can read my interview with Robert about why he launched CForward here. Robert’s video about the need to advocate for the nonprofit sector is below (or here if you are reading this in an email):

And then in the last couple of months there have been two similar movements to better advocate for the nonprofit sector. Dan Pallotta released a new book last month called Charity Case: How the Nonprofit Community Can Stand Up for Itself and Change the World where he announces the creation of his new entity, the Charity Defense Council, which is also aimed at advocating for the nonprofit sector, via five efforts:

  1. An “anti-defamation league” to respond to and rectify inaccurate reports about the sector in the media
  2. Big public advertising campaigns for the sector
  3. A “legal defense fund” to challenge unproductive laws against the sector
  4. Work to create a “National Civil Rights Act for Charity and Social Enterprise” to support the sector
  5. Grassroots organizing of the sector as a whole, including a national database of every nonprofit in the country

And then the third grand effort to advocate for the nonprofit sector comes from Independent Sector, the organization formed in 1980 to “advance the common good by leading, strengthening, and mobilizing the nonprofit and philanthropic community.” Their new report “Beyond the Cause,” which interviewed 100 nonprofit organizations, recommends the creation of a national organization (probably run by Independent Sector) to push a nonprofit agenda, costing $20 million over 4 years. For Independent Sector the key issues that such an entity would address are:

  1. Changes that could limit the organizations eligible for charity status
  2. Threats to charitable tax deductions for donors
  3. A need to clarify advocacy and lobbying rules for charities and private foundations
  4. Changes to Internal Revenue Service disclosure forms that could hamper nonprofit operations
  5. Burdensome paperwork and red tape involving government contracts with nonprofits
  6. Lack of government-financed research on the nonprofit world

While CForward seems to be largely supported in their work, both Pallotta’s and Independent Sector’s efforts are drawing fire. Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, writes a scathing review of Pallotta’s new book and advocacy effort and concludes that “Mr. Pallotta is selling is himself—as both the nonprofit world’s messiah and its advertising agency,” and suggests that people support CForward and Independent Sector instead of Pallotta’s Charity Defense Council.

Similarly, Pablo Eisenberg, senior fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, dislikes Independent Sector’s effort to coalesce the nonprofit sector arguing that “nonprofits will never share a broad consensus about which issues are most important. The best that nonprofits can accomplish is to strengthen their individual advocacy and lobbying activities and join with other organizations in coalitions that fight for specific policy changes.”

It is really a fascinating and multi-layered debate. I strongly agree that the nonprofit sector is often dismissed in the policies of the day. But if organizations like Independent Sector have been working to create a common voice for the sector for more than 30 years with little improvement, I’m not sure what will change. Especially if 3 separate entities are all singing different verses of the same tune. They will be competing for dollars, mind-share, and the ears of policy makers. But I am a huge advocate for fixing a broken sector, so let’s see how this all plays out.

What do you think? How do we get policy makers to recognize the importance and value of the nonprofit sector?

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Discussing the Future

So this is kind of interesting, and I’m not sure yet what to make of it.  Independent Sector, a coalition of 600 charities, foundations, and corporate giving programs working to strengthen the nonprofit sector, has launched an online forum, called FutureLab to answer the question: “What can we do right now, as a nonprofit community, to create a better, more vibrant 2020?”  They are attempting to spur a “national conversation to explore the challenges and possibilities that will affect the nonprofit and foundation community for years to come and to develop groundbreaking strategies that will shape our future.”  Those are massive questions and a massive undertaking.  But didn’t I just say that the nonprofit sector needs to be more bold?  Perhaps this is a step in the right direction.

FutureLab has broken this broad conversation into nine discussion areas which are:

  • Diversity
  • Global Engagement
  • Integration with Religious Groups
  • Leadership
  • Responsibilities of Government and Nonprofits
  • Technology
  • Civic Engagement
  • 21st Century Economy
  • Impact

And they also have a “coffeehouse” area where people can contribute ideas that don’t fit into those categories.

Through social media and other channels they are encouraging anyone connected to the nonprofit sector (volunteers, staff, board members, consultants, etc.) to contribute their ideas for what could make the sector better.  You can comment on existing ideas, submit your own ideas, or vote on contributed ideas.

It doesn’t look like many people are contributing yet, and you have to wonder what the end goal is and what will be done with the volume of ideas and information they are hoping to gather.  Will anything come of it?  Will anything change? Independent Sector’s goals for the project are a bit tenuous:

Members of the nonprofit and philanthropic community are encouraged not only to review the content posted during this discussion, but to draw on relevant insights to inform their own planning and decision making. Independent Sector…will produce a summary of highlights that will be made available to nonprofits and foundations. Independent Sector may also identify ideas from the conversation to pursue as part of its ongoing work.

But there are some heavy hitters involved.  The funding for the project comes from major foundations like Gates, Annie E. Casey, Skoll, Kellogg Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Sea Change Capital.  So something interesting has to come out of it, right?  Anyway, it will be interesting to watch.  If you’re interested, join the discussion.

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Friday, October 16th, 2009 Nonprofits, Philanthropy 1 Comment

New Ideas in a New Year

2009 is finally here and with the new year comes some interesting new ideas.  The struggles of 2008 have the potential to stimulate innovative solutions.  With a new administration entering office on January 20th there could be significant changes in how the nonprofit sector receives resources (funding, staff, government support, etc).  You can read my post on some of the changes the Obama administration might make here.

But it seems the nonprofit sector is not waiting around for those potential changes.  There just isn’t time.  So, in the midst of the uncertainty facing the sector, some interesting innovation is happening.

In December a Washington, DC coalition of eight regional organizations convened Nonprofit 911 bringing together 500+ nonprofit, business, and government leaders to develop a plan of action that “redefines how the nonprofit sector operates in this new fiscal reality.”  It’s not clear yet (since they’ve been around only a few weeks) exactly what this coalition will do and what the results will be, but it is interesting to see such an unprecedented reaction to the crisis.

Another interesting development is an idea proposed by Independent Sector, a coalition of 600+ foundations and nonprofits.  They are proposing to Congress a federal government revolving loan fund that would reimburse nonprofits for essential services they have performed for local and regional governments.  These governments are now cash-strapped and unable to pay for those services.  Perhaps the beginnings of a conversation about a nonprofit bailout, to follow the financial and auto industry bailouts?  If that’s the case I’d like to see something much more ambitious and sustainable for the long-term.  I’m not sure this is the answer.

However, the interesting part is the discussions that these new ideas are generating.  This New Year should be a very interesting one.

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Monday, January 5th, 2009 Innovators, Nonprofits No Comments


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