June 17, 2015

Nonprofit Brainstorming Tour Gives Leaders a Forum to Air Their Concerns


Sandra Vargas, president of the Minneapolis Foundation, said she wanted to get rid of "Minnesota Nice" so nonprofit leaders in her state could speak frankly about changes they need to make to prepare for the future.

Jeff Prauer, executive director of the Metropolitan Regional Arts Council, in St. Paul, said he’s tired of the attitude that "homeless people prefer to be homeless," calling it a "denial of the diversity of human conditions so many of us are trying to address."

Tawanna Black, executive director of Northside Funders Group, in Minneapolis, said people are concerned about keeping the "needs of the neediest" in front of grant makers when the economy is improving and fighting "short attention spans."

Susan Sheridan Tucker, executive director of League of Women Voters Minnesota, said her organization was struggling with how to change its culture "without giving up the legacy we’ve developed."

All four were speaking at a recent brainstorming session that brought charity and foundation leaders together to consider how their organizations should adjust to upheavals in their working environment. The reference to "Minnesota Nice" was a regional variation, but the type of conversation they were having has been taking place in cities across the country as part of a major project organized by Independent Sector, the national association of nonprofits and foundations.

In an effort dubbed "Threads," the group’s president, Diana Aviv, has traveled to 10 cities since March, warning each audience that nonprofits and foundations should take account of nine trends "that will shape the charitable sector’s operating environment in profound and unavoidable ways over the coming two decades."

"Despite all the good work we’ve done and all the resources we’ve expended, we have yet to solve the big problems of the day," she tells them. "I’m concerned that the world around us is changing at such speeds that it will pass us by in a single generation unless we take action."

She cites inequality and climate change, greater ethnic diversity, more business involvement in social issues, and uncertainties about government’s role. She discusses the "swarms" of individuals who mobilize quickly on social-media networks, new types of social-change organizations like B corporations and low-profit, limited-liability corporations (LC3s), growing business involvement in social and environmental issues, and political polarization.

Ms. Aviv calls the impact of technology "so pervasive, so life altering, that I view it less as a trend and more of an engine of change," noting that "the unprecedented ability to connect with others has democratized communities that have access to the Internet."

Almost 850 people have attended Threads sessions, mostly nonprofit or foundation leaders but also some business and government representatives. Twitter feeds have followed Ms. Aviv’s travels across the country, with Threads participants flagging comments from their sessions and occasionally critiquing her themes: Oakland: "Another trend from #ThreadsOAK: increasing demand for proof of impact & the challenge it poses to major social changes that take time." Detroit: "Issues holding sector back: image, compensation, wrong measurements, competing not collaborating." Boston: "Have been hearing about boundary blurring of sectors since at least 1999 ... how much real vs. hype?" Silicon Valley: "Lucy Bernholz received applause questioning the premise that technology democratizes power rather than concentrating it." (Ms. Bernholz, a visiting scholar at the Stanford University Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, wrote a blog post explaining her thinking.)

Ms. Aviv — who has three more cities and an online streaming conversation on her itinerary this summer — said Threads conversations in all regions have touched on common themes: nonprofit leadership, income and racial inequality, empowering low-income and minority communities, attracting and retaining talent, and technology gaps.

Two things surprised her, she said in an interview. One was "the degree to which so many communities have expressed their sadness and frustration that collaboration is so difficult," she said. "It doesn’t happen nearly as much as people think it does happen or should happen."

She also expected people to name resources as a problem but learned that many think the whole structure for financing nonprofits is "broken." She said people complained, for example, that "money is driving goals," with organizations changing their activities to meet demands for certain outcomes from their donors.

Participants who discussed the nonprofit "funding model" in Detroit said it "promotes competition, encourages short-term focus, and fosters an unhealthy aversion to risk," according to an Independent Sector summary.

After discussing the charitable world’s problems, the Threads groups are asked to name some of its "bright spots," or innovative efforts that are "moving the needle."

Minneapolis participants praised the Northside Achievement Zone, an effort by more than 30 nonprofits and schools to fight poverty and improve academic performance in a north Minneapolis neighborhood; successful campaigns to legalize gay marriage and defeat a proposed constitutional amendment requiring voter IDs, which "required nonprofits to come together across boundaries"; and the Blue Line Coalition, which unites more than 15 groups working to ensure that a light-rail extension benefits low-income communities.

Independent Sector’s role is also up for discussion at the gatherings. Trista Harris, president of the Minnesota Council on Foundations, and Susie Brown, public-policy director at the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, both told Ms. Aviv the group should expand its advocacy agenda to go beyond issues that affect nonprofits directly like tax policy. "There are some questions that are defining questions of the day," Ms. Brown said, citing immigration policy as an example.

"Sometimes we get a little shortsighted when it comes to public-policy issues," Ms. Harris said after the meeting. "We think about what does this mean for nonprofits rather than what it means for the communities nonprofits serve."

She said the Threads discussion resembled conversations that Minnesota’s philanthropic community has been having in the last few years, With a big achievement gap between white and minority performance in Twin Cities schools, for example, foundations are "realizing we’ve put a ton of money into education but the outcomes are worse," and it’s time to do things differently.

She said her group is working to "stay much more connected to what’s happening nationally" as well as to work more strategically with the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits.

Ms. Aviv said she could not comment on what Independent Sector will recommend until her road show is over. The group plans to draw up a report that will be presented in October at its annual conference in Miami and then start a process of determining who has the "skill set" to move critical issues forward — which won’t always be Independent Sector, she said.

She encourages each audience to continue the conversation in its community — and to move quickly. "If we want to be faithful to our missions and responsible stewards of the resources entrusted to us, we must alter our practices. We must change course," she said. "And we must do it now. The clock is ticking."