The Independent Sector (IS) 2016 Conference was a thought-provoking, inspiring conference, that reminded me why I go to conferences—for the opportunity for learning through face-to-face interactions. In mid-November I joined my colleagues from the Packard Foundation Organizational Effectiveness team at the conference to meet and learn from people across the social sector—including nonprofits, foundations, and corporations.
I was struck by two themes at the conference. The first was equity and inclusion. This year, the Conference underscored the urgent need to intentionally include people of color and the disenfranchised, to engage in cross-sector policy work instead of isolating ourselves by issue area, and to put new energy behind realizing a diversified talent pool across our sector. With the opening reception at the newly opened Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, conference attendees deeply absorbed the sobering truth that we must be united if we want to bring sustainable, equitable solutions to scale.
Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of Equality Justice Initiative urged conference attendees to spend time with the most vulnerable people in our communities to indelibly change our perspectives and to put us on a path to genuinely create change. And even if we cannot physically travel to be in close proximity to one another, we can look for narratives in media that put people with disparate views in each other’s shoes. This resonates strongly with the OE team, since one of our organizational values at the Foundation is respect for all people—we know that the success of our work depends on seeking out and listening to the ideas and advice of others.
The second theme that struck me was the opportunity that the conference provided to address the challenge of the uneven balance of power between funders and nonprofits. Indeed, one of the hallmarks of IS programming is that it enables funders and nonprofits to meet on common ground and discuss the challenges of the funder/nonprofit power dynamic. In a breakout session titled New Models for Achieving and Assessing Performance, funders and grantees identified the same challenges facing their organizations and the field. One of the audience members asked the panel of speakers about their nonprofit could approach funders to have constructive conversations about “failure” without punitive consequences. We were proud when the Packard Foundation’s Organizational Effectiveness approach was highlighted as an example of how funders can open the door to discuss challenges for grantees or inconsistencies in results, and then respond in a supportive manner by investing in the grantee to strengthen their organization. When our grantee partners commit to addressing their organizational challenges, we believe this is a sign of strength, not weakness. This requires a high level of trust, which we as a funder must earn from our nonprofit partners.
The Organizational Effectiveness team returned to the Packard Foundation offices with a renewed enthusiasm to collaboratively work with our grantee partners to discuss “failure” as an opportunity to adapt as an organization in order to contribute to the systems-level change we are all seeking.