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Independent Sector Conference
Topics: Program Officers
“Independent sector? Sounds like code.”
That’s what one colleague quipped right before I headed to New York recently for the Independent Sector's annual conference. This year’s event–entitled Lead On: Innovation. Democracy. Impact–brought together a record-breaking number of individuals from nonprofits and funding organizations for two and a half days of conference sessions on issues affecting the nonprofit sector, interwoven with performances by talented artists.
The most provocative moment of the conference happened during the plenary on day two. Actor Daniel Beaty launched and concluded the session with a riveting spoken-word and acappella music performance that aimed to bring a sense of unity around a commitment to the common good and our democratic government. In the middle, Independent Sector's Diana Aviv and Rockefeller Brothers Fund's Stephen Heinz called on the entire nonprofit and philanthropic sector to unite around revitalizing our nation's democracy. This call to action was especially charged with the federal government shutdown just hours away. But, what exactly were they talking about? The ultimate collective impact endeavor?
Tentatively called the "National Purpose Initiative,” Rockefeller and several other national funders will soon be launching a multi-year effort to engage everyone who lives within our borders in community dialogues to develop a shared vision and agenda for the country that focuses on solutions for what's broken in our political and economic systems. And, they want all of us to participate by engaging the constituencies that each of us touch through our organizations, as well as getting beyond these groups to reach those who have different politics, and learning how to find common ground.
On the one hand, I love the idea of moving beyond complaints about broken government toward a conversation about solutions. On the other hand, with the sector so stretched already and the challenges so large, I wonder how we could ever pull this off? The speakers provided no answer to this question, but I have no doubt that we will be hearing more about this ambitious initiative in the future.
The biggest highlight was a combination plenary presentation and performance by brilliant jazz musician Wynton Marsalis. In the context of building more inclusive and healthy communities, Marsalis reminded us that the best innovators are those most firmly rooted in community and tradition and that it is the recombination of existing tradition with new ideas that lead to the strongest innovations. Playing in a trio with a pianist and bassist, they drove home his point home by riffing off one another’s inspirations while playing several traditional jazz pieces to create new tunes on the spot. This was an important reminder that innovation is never really something entirely new. Instead, we need to understand that we all stand on the shoulders of those who have come before us as we build on past and current efforts to broaden positive social and environmental change in our communities.
In contrast to these arts-infused offerings, I attended a panel discussion on how funders and nonprofits think about evidence-based work. While the panelists were definitely strong believers in evidence-based practice and programs, they spent some time shining a light on pitfalls. For example, they pointed out that it is actually quite difficult to get valid, complete and meaningful evidence. One of the reasons is that most organizations do not have the infrastructure to support the collection of relevant and complete data. Another is the challenge of translating research findings into practical guidance for practitioners. They warned that we should watch out for contributing to a culture that leads to undertaking only “safe evaluation” that will affirm the validity of the work that organizations already do. Organizations need the space to take risks in collecting evidence and not be penalized for this. They also need to be open to responding to results that point them in a new direction.
The need to recognize and dismantle the institutions and systems that create privilege for some communities and result in oppression of others was a strong theme that emerged in nearly every session I attended. One nascent effort that I learned about, which aims to do this at the local level, is called Participatory Budgeting NYC. Through this process, community members directly decide how to spend part of the City of New York’s budget ($15 million last year) for physical infrastructure projects. As a result, more community members, particularly immigrants and communities of color, are involved in city decision making, and more projects are being built in poorer neighborhoods than in the past. It will be interesting to see how this idea continues to develop over time.
I can't sign off without giving a shout out to New York. What a city! We had perfect late summer weather in stark contrast to the torrential rains back home and it provided a fantastic backdrop for the many delights this great city has to offer. Highlights included:
- Meandering along the Highline, a one mile park built on an old elevated railroad line. Great art (see photo above), great views, and a great lunch at the historic Chelsea Market, the terminus of our walk.
- Walking the historic Brooklyn Bridge, which was constructed in the late 1800s.
- Eating fabulous ramen, bagels & lox, pickles and so much more!
- Donning a faux-fur coat and stepping into Minus Five, one of those “ice bars” you've heard about. Situated in the conference hotel, I couldn't resist the novelty.
While I barely scratched the surface of my time in New York, and I’m still not sure if I cracked the Independent Sector code, I am grateful for what I learned and experienced. If you want to talk more about the conference or the city, I would love to hear from you.
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