A New Strategic Vision for Independent Sector

In the fall of 2013, Independent Sector invested considerable time, talent, and resources, in a new strategic vision. On more than one occasion we were asked: “Why fix what isn’t broken?”

Thirty-five years on, IS is most certainly a strong organization. We have a clear record of accomplishment on promoting public policies that advance the sector, a “signature” annual conference that brings together donors, doers, and those who provide services to them, and have created with the help of our members a host of programs and tools designed to strengthen and empower the charitable community.

Independent Sector has a secure financial position, a deep reservoir of talented staff, a board that embraces the future, and a stable, committed membership base. We continue to advance a core notion first articulated by our founding chairman John Gardner that the sector requires a “vital meeting ground” to share ideas, learn together, and solve problems. Independent Sector was far from “broken.”

And yet as we looked out into the future, we saw change all around us – changes that were impacting IS and the entire charitable sector. We had no choice but to think critically about how those forces would shape the future of our organization. That is what we did through a process of analysis and consultation.

Among other trends, we observed a society and a sector that grow increasingly fragmented, often making it harder to address the great societal issues of our time. We saw how technology makes it possible for all of us to opt into services and information that are highly customized, and out of everything else that does not interest us. This, we believe, has resulted in a new form of “tribalism” that leads to greater degrees of isolation and parochialism. And, as a membership organization, we studied how the flow of information, hierarchy of privileges, and expectations of what it means “to belong” among members have changed fundamentally and forever. This raised important questions about how our structure needs to change if it is to be useful to others in the future.

These forces, among others that we examined, (including the nine trends we prioritized at right), made clear that if Independent Sector is to keep adding value to the work of our members and the sector, we needed a new strategic vision, building upon demonstrated strengths and at the same time reimagining how we do our work.

Independent Sector has worked diligently since its founding to be the vital voice for both foundations and nonprofits on federal policies that can impede – or accelerate – the sector’s good works. As we have crisscrossed the nation these past few months in a series of community conversations called “Threads,” we have been sharing what we have learned in our visioning process, and we have heard consistently that IS’ policy advocacy and analysis are foundational to our value proposition. This is our bedrock and we will continue to build on it.

As we anticipate the coming presidential election and the change of administration that it will bring, we will redouble our efforts to ensure that the voice of the charitable community is heard and heeded. Longer term, our goal is to expand our federal policy work from a predominantly defensive posture to one that is more forward leaning. As we explore how we might broaden our policy efforts, we will also seek new opportunities to partner with others.

Throughout the Threads conversations we heard a sentiment that IS plays a unique role as the only national organization to bring together nonprofits and foundations. We will continue to build on this framework, using it as a fundamental “plank” in our approach to taking on new issues, and convening the field. The very fact that we represent the “two halves of the whole” is what will allow us to co-create new approaches to issues, bringing forward solutions that advance the entire sector, not just a piece of it. And while IS is an organization “of ” the charitable sector, we recognize that there are many others who contribute in meaningful ways to improving life and the natural world. In the times ahead, our task is to find new ways to better engage and partner with those forces – individuals, corporations, and government – thereby harnessing the necessary knowledge, relevant skills, and needed resources to the task of solving the massive challenges society faces.

Independent Sector is, at its core, a vibrant community of members and stakeholders – from the smallest of local volunteer organizations to “mega” organizations that operate on a global scale with thousands of professional staff members. We will continue to be an organization that welcomes diverse members committed to the common good. And we will continue to listen carefully to learn more about what they most value from us. As we learn, we will pilot programming and offerings designed to respond to those interests and preferences. By 2018, we look to offer the structure, programs, and systems that effectively enable a diverse, dynamic, and increasingly global universe of actors committed to improving life and the natural world.

Through its history, IS has often found itself at the front of the line in leading on policy matters affecting the sector and developing practices and tools designed to strengthen and empower the chartable sector. To be sure, there will be times ahead, when Independent Sector will continue in its leadership role. However, there will also be many occasions where the best contribution we might make is to support the good work of others, and to make our platforms and resources available to bring that good work to a much wider audience. Finding new ways to work through partnership will help reduce duplication and accelerate the impact we all seek. Of course, the role of partner is one we have long embraced. We look to build upon our collaborative efforts with local, regional, and national organizations and networks as we did with Threads – sessions that were made possible by a commitment to work with state and regional networks. And our 2017 conference in Detroit, long in the making, will be a partnered conference, bringing together IS, the Michigan Nonprofit Association, and the Council of Michigan Foundations. Much more on this to come!

This inaugural issue of “ISQ” gave me a welcome opportunity to explain what we have been up to these past many months, and I think you’ll agree it’s been quite a lot. I hope you will come to see Independent Sector Quarterly as a window – a view into the many wonderful initiatives that are happening with, and because of, our members – including our 2016 IS National Conference in Washington, D.C.

As I conclude my service at Independent Sector, I do so with immense appreciation for each of you and the ways in which you have made our work possible these last dozen years. IS is built on a strong foundation and, with your support, we will continue to build and lift up a sector that, as John Gardner wrote, “is a source of deep and positive meaning in our national life.”

-Diana Aviv, former president and CEO

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