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'Envisioning Our Future': Let the Conversation Begin

July 29, 2009

Conversations As Michael Seltzer noted in a post yesterday, Independent Sector is kicking off its "Envisioning Our Future" initiative this week with a three-day "StrategyLab" event in Colorado Springs. The invitation-only event brings together some seventy-five nonprofit and philanthropic leaders -- presumably to discuss how they can turn IS's vision of "a national conversation about the challenges and possibilities that will shape the ability of nonprofits and foundations to improve lives for years to come" into reality.

Gen Y blogger Rosetta Thurman wrote a nice post about the initiative last week in which she expressed her concern (shared by others) that the effort, as conceived, will turn into a series of conversation involving "the same old leaders" talking about the same old topics. In a press release announcing this week's event, IS tackles that concern head on, noting (among other things) that the initiative will employ "an iterative process for problem solving using a number of highly participatory activities that encourage interaction among those with different perspectives"; and that it will work to "encourage participation from people associated with organizations of all sizes, mission areas, and locations, as well as from thought leaders throughout society."

Sounds reasonable to me, and I'm looking forward to seeing the initiative unfold over the next few months.

Not everyone is as patient as I am, however. In an "open letter" posted on his blog earlier today, Bill Huddleston, of the Huddleston Consulting Group, offers a list of seven nonprofit issues deserving of participants' "consideration, discussion, and action." Here's the Cliff Notes version:

1. Nonprofits have done a spectacularly lousy job of explaining themselves to the American public.

"Modern societies need three components to function: government, businesses, and nonprofits," writes Huddleston. "Nonprofits are the glue that holds society together, and while in the USA we have a market economy, our society is bigger than the economy. Nonprofits are inherently different than businesses. Governments are inherently different than businesses.... It is astounding how many nonprofit leaders (and political leaders) don't do a better job of communicating to the American public about the value of all three components of society, all of which are critical...."

2. The question "Are there too many nonprofits?" is the wrong question.

"A better question," writes Huddleston, "is: 'Have we solved all the problems that need solving?' Until the answer to that question is yes, then the answer to 'Are there too many profits' is "No, we don't have enough of the right nonprofits!' "

3. Scalabity is a false idol.

"Recognize the fact that we live in a complex world and some nonprofits need to be big in order to accomplish their mission," writes Huddleston. "Other nonprofits do not need to be big in order to be successful and in fact would fail if they were a different size."

4. Stop whining!

"There are way too many nonprofit leaders and professionals saying 'We don’t have a seat at the government table'," writes Huddleston. "More than 150 years ago," he adds, "Frederick Douglas got it right when he said: 'The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.' "

5. Don't forget the power of ordinary individuals achieving extraordinary results.'

"The nonprofit sector suffers from the same 'star CEO mentality' that has captured the business world...."

6. Baby Boomers aren't going to go away.

"The baby boom generation cohort has redefined our society at every age, from elementary school to Woodstock to today," writes Huddleston. "They may change jobs, change careers, go to some mixture of independent consulting and 'regular job' but they are not going to retire at 65 to go sit on a rocking chair and do nothing. Get used to having a very diverse workforce, including age diverse."

7. 'The Philanthropist' TV show should be supported.

"This is an incredible opportunity and benefit to the entire nonprofit sector," writes Huddleston. "THERE IS A PRIME TIME TV SHOW DEALING WITH NONPROFIT ISSUES! This is great! Don’t miss the forest for the trees, and I don't care whether or not you think 'it's not an accurate portrayal of the difficulties that nonprofit professionals face.' It is entertainment and it will generate interest and conversation about nonprofits! Believe me; you don't want to be hosting the panel three years from now on 'What could nonprofits have done better to have kept "The Philanthropist" from being canceled'.”

(Click here to read the complete post.)

So, that's one view of what those of us who work in or report on the nonprofit sector should be talking about at this critical juncture. What's yours? And has Independent Sector created a framework that is flexible and inclusive enough to support the conversations we'd all like to hear and be a part of?

Leave your comments below....

-- Mitch Nauffts


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