This past October, the Sanford Institute of Philanthropy at John F. Kennedy University hosted its 5th Annual Philanthropy Summit. With over 375 nonprofit leaders in attendance, including remote attendees livestreaming from around the country, this was the SIP @ JFKU’s biggest summit yet. The title of the event, Philanthropy at a Crossroads: Building Authentic Donor Engagement and Healthier Nonprofits, forecast the themes that emerged throughout the day. In a variety of ways, these themes centered around the importance of clear messaging and clear listening as paths toward, as Colleen Fischer of the Parkinson’s Foundation put it, “building the future we keep talking about.”

The day kicked off with a morning address by Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, who highlighted the many misconceptions that exist about nonprofits and the importance of correcting these misconceptions. Murmurs of commiseration filled the room as Buchanan described the stereotype of the nonprofit as being ineffective and unable to survive in the real world. Emphasis was placed on the importance of re-educating funders and helping them understand the reality that nonprofits are essential to our progress at this crucial moment in time.

Owning your nonprofitness

It is important for nonprofits to assert their unique identities and capabilities and in particular, as Buchanan highlighted, to uphold their differences from the business world. “Investing and b-corps aren’t going to replace nonprofits and can’t play the roles nonprofits play,” he said.

Such a differentiation from the business world is crucial not only in terms of how funders see nonprofits, but also in terms of how nonprofits see themselves. When nonprofits conflate themselves with businesses and adopt language and frameworks from the business world, these frameworks can prove ill-fitting and detrimental. For example, Buchanan explained, in the business world it can be considered risky to let another company know your strategy, whereas for a foundation to be successful, collaboration is key and strategies must be shared. Buchanan cited the emergence of funder co-impact collaboratives as an example of strategy-sharing in action.

During the ensuing panel discussion, Kimberly Aceves-Iniguez, executive director of RYSE Richmond, followed up on the topic, explaining how her organization has embraced the assumed directive that nonprofits should behave as businesses and turned the idea on its head: “We’ve been told to be like a business,” she said, so her organization has taken to acquiring property just as businesses do but as a means of creating equity, rather than accumulating wealth. 

Asserting one’s nonprofit identity was also seen as a key communicative tool. “We have to connect to the new businesses coming to the east bay and let them know how they can connect to the issues we are facing,” said James W. Head, president CEO of the East Bay Community Foundation. But it wasn’t just the telling their messages that Summit participants discussed. As Rozella Kennedy, chief development officer of CalShakes, asked, “How do we really succinctly both tell and listen?”

Using your voice while enabling the voices of others

“People are the best experts on their own lives,” stressed keynote speaker Phil Buchanan. This sentiment was additionally echoed by special guest speaker Kathleen Kelly Janus who discussed her work traveling throughout the state of California as senior advisor on social innovation to Governor Gavin Newsom. One of her main takeaways from this experience was not only that all communities are different but that communities know the solutions to their own problems. “Our goal,” Janus explained, “is to support them and then get out of the way.”

Panel speakers Kimberly Aceves-Iniguez and Rozella Kennedy also echoed the idea of honoring the wisdom of those one is aiming to support when they emphasized the importance of listening to the youth in a time of great social change. “It really has to be centered around young people,” urged Aceves-Iniguez, while Kennedy stressed the importance of learning from the youth: “I believe the younger generation is going to show us a lot about how to lead nonprofits,” said Kennedy. She also emphasized the importance of information sharing and learning from each other by envisioning nonprofits as “clearinghouses helping us find each other and work collaboratively.”

Finally, Buchanan encouraged nonprofit leaders to use their voices to inform and influence policy to shift in the directions needed for their goals to be met. Kathleen Kelly Janus reiterated this point when she encouraged the audience to bring their voices to her and to communicate their ideas directly to the governor’s office.

Listening to yourself, and to your organization: Self-care 101

The final portion of the day at SIP Summit 2019 took a turn toward looking inward, within the self and within the organization, with keynote speaker Beth Kanter’s address on self-care. Kanter divided her presentation into two areas: personal resilience and organizational resilience, and began by demonstrating frameworks and tools for assessing burnout. Attendees each conducted their own personal passion fatigue assessment and also identified their “personal chaos index,” a sign, such as dirty dishes piling up or double-booking yourself, that it is time to hit the pause button.   

After discussing tips for assessing burnout, Kanter turned toward the creation of a self-care plan. Audience members were encouraged to protect their sleep, routinely stretch at their desks, take walks throughout the day, take control of their phone, and find quiet (phone-free) times during the day. Kanter provided solid tips for how to get a handle on these deceptively simple directives, such as downloading an app that helps prevent getting mindlessly sucked into one’s phone.

In terms of organizational resilience, Kanter offered strategies similarly designed to disrupt the grind, such as starting meetings with short meditations. Clever solutions from the field were also provided as examples. These included a “technology detox box” where people could stash their phones during meetings in order to facilitate focus and connection, and a “donut bot” that randomly paired employees at a large organization for coffee meetups to facilitate face-to-face contact, employee connection, and job satisfaction.

However, Kanter stressed, and in doing so echoed the day’s theme of listening and allowing voices to be heard, management should avoid jumping to solutions before getting input from staff. As Kathleen Kelly Janus said regarding communities around California, and as Kimberly Aceves-Iniguez remarked regarding the youth, they are the ones who know best what they need.

In summary

In summary of the SIP Summit 2019, Solomon Belette, Director of the Sanford Institute of Philanthropy, reflected: “The Summit speakers and panelists brought to life the importance of believing in one’s work and mission, adapting to changes without compromising one’s values and identity, and taking care of oneself and creating a healthier organizational culture. These actions will help us steer philanthropy in the right direction and preserve the common good.”

A video re-cap of the Summit will soon be available. Stay tuned for the video and upcoming SIP @ JFKU events at JFKU.edu/college/sanford-institute-of-philanthropy.