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Very New Frontiers: Reflections from the Independent Sector Conference 2016

A couple of my colleagues and I attended the Independent Sector Conference 2016 a few weeks ago. The Independent Sector Conference is the annual gathering of “Independent Sector”, the leading “coalition of nonprofits, foundations, and corporate giving programs committed to advancing the common good.”

The conference took place a week after the seismic presidential election, and as many would anticipate, the election was the main topic in conversations in hallways, in sessions, and in late night dinners. We’ve spent some time digesting all that we heard and discussed, and we reflect here on the key themes and concerns that we heard at the conference.

We heard a lot of concern and angst about the election and possible impacts on issues like the environment, racial justice, immigration, international development, and education. We also heard a lot of resolve to continue, and to expand, the important work the members of the Independent Sector do every day.  (And thanks to my colleagues Kurt Voelker and Jenny Hols for contributions to this post.)  

To strengthen that resolve and increase the impact of issue-focused work, we see three key tactics that nonprofits and foundations should use in this changed environment:   

  • Sharpen your focus and message: in this time of uncertainty it is important for any independent sector organization to take stock of who they need to be reaching online, what new and different messages they must be communicating to them, and how best to reach them. At Forum One we’ve done this recently with She Should Run, the national network changing culture to inspire more women and girls to run for office. We worked with SSR to craft their messages and content very specifically for their target audience of women considering running for office. 
  • Use your data stories: Budgets will likely be scrutinized and tightened in 2017. Some of the sector’s most valuable, yet under-utilized assets, is its data. It’s critical that organizations use program and impact data to tell their story and show the value of the important work they are doing. We helped USDA’s Farm to School Census turn their wealth of data into visual stories and messages that engage their audiences and show the value of their work. 
  • Use emotion and experimentation for fundraising success: non-profit organizations will need to be even more effective at engaging interested audiences to raise funds to support their ongoing and expanded work. Online fundraising can succeed best when it builds on the combination of emotional messages and analytic data-driven experimentation and learning. At the Independent Sector conference we heard a great case study of this by the African Wildlife Foundation organization.

Key Themes

The Independent Sector in this Time of Transition

Stay focused on your values and keep up the work to aid vulnerable populations. That’s the answer we heard to the concerns voiced about the recent presidential election. Many speakers and attendees spoke about the need to stay highly engaged in supporting work in the environment, children’s health and well-being, immigrants’ rights, social justice and other issues. The President of the Joyce Foundation, Ellen Alberding (@ealberding) said that grant-making foundations, like Joyce, should not get “whipsawed” by political events in a time like this, but stay focused on their long-term goals and values. Tom Sheridan, of the Sheridan Group, spoke about how the “The Independent Sector is our best line of defense for vulnerable populations. … Advocacy is not a luxury; it’s essential.” (quote courtesy of Gene Takagi).  Others echoed a recent Independent Sector research report which showed strong public support for government and charities to collaborate to solve problems. 

We also heard optimistic and energetic conversations, such as some calling for even more active  advocacy on key issues: “Foundations could and should be more aggressive on the advocacy front on the issues they really care about,” said Alberding of the Joyce Foundation. We were also inspired to hear and see the young “NGEN Fellows” at the conference, 12 early career charitable sector leaders who will receive training and coaching for a year from the Independent Sector. It’s an inspiring group, including these five:

  • Devon Akmon, Director, Arab American National Museum, Dearborn, MI
  • Lisa Fasolo Frishman, Senior Program Officer, Health Foundation for Western and Central New York, Buffalo, NY
  • Abby Laine Sienkiewicz, Interim Executive Director/CEO, Center for Nonprofit Excellence in Colorado Springs, Colorado Spring, CO
  • Neesha Modi, Program Officer, The Kresge Foundation, Troy, MI
  • Kashif Shaikh, Founder and Executive Director, Pillars Fund, Chicago, IL

Racial Equity

The need for the Independent Sector to play a large role in pushing for racial equity came through in keynote sessions by Bryan Stevenson, drawing on his emotional story (book) of his path to founding the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama. David Williams of Harvard also spoke with stark statistics on the effects of the system of racism and how organizations like the Independent Sector need to help  combat it.  

Some Brights Spots in Fundraising

We heard several sessions about bright spots in fundraising – how to do it well, what works and success stories. Jeanne Bell of Compass Point spoke about their recent “Fundraising Bright Spots” report, which briefly concluded organizations successful in fundraising were those which fit four characteristics:

  1. Fundraising is Core to the Organization’s Identity
  2. Fundraising is Distributed Broadly Across Staff, Board and Volunteers
  3. Fundraising Succeeds Because of Authentic Relationships with Donors
  4. Fundraising is Characterized by Persistence, Discipline, and Intentionality

We also enjoyed a session with David Onate of the African Wildlife Foundation of the fundraising experiences and successes AWF has seen. He, along with their partners from Care2 and Sanky, presented about AWF’s efforts, which have included a three year program of experimentation, analysis and iteration – and yielded some very positive returns for AWF. They have raised more than $1million net for AWF in the past five years using, among other tactics:

  • Multiple sources to capture potential donors, spanning Care2’s campaigns, ads on Google and Bing, Facebook ads, and others. They also used various methods of “remarketing” to people identified by one method using other methods – such as using Facebook to remarket to people identified through AWF’s email subscriber list. 
  • Crafting a full “conversion series” of messages to be ready to go when you launch an outreach campaign.
  • Targeting the 75% of online donors do online research by investing in Search Engine Optimization and Search Engine Marketing – which yielded a very high return. 

Yes, Opportunities!

The Independent Sector’s new CEO, Dan Cardinali, gave a rousing send-off, quoting John Gardner, the founder of the organization:

“America faces breathtaking opportunities disguised as unsolvable problems.” 

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