Let America be America again. Let it be the dream it used to be.

– Langston Hughes

From the Big Apple to the Bay Area, Independent Sector has traveled to more than a dozen cities to meet face-to-face with colleagues in the charitable sector.

Our topic? What does the future hold and, specifically, how will nine critical trends shape society and the environment in which we work over the next two decades? Former President and CEO Diana Aviv stressed the importance of recognizing and responding to these trends and sought suggestions for IS’ role.

These community conversations were made possible through the generosity and support of more than 50 funder and partner organizations across the country, without whose support and hard work
none of this could have happened. Known as Threads, these events attracted attendees from charities large and small, community and private foundations, academia, government, and the private sector. They spanned the range of roles within their organizations, and we heard from millennials, baby boomers, and every generation in between. The venues themselves were similarly diverse and interesting, ranging from the Oakland Asian Cultural Center to the Detroit Zoo to the Twin Cities’ Metropolitan Club – with Diana appearing on a stage played years earlier by favorite son Prince.

As Independent Sector’s vice president of public policy, I helped plan these events – and I was fortunate enough to participate in many of them. This gave me an opportunity to hear leaders across the country discuss challenges – and explore potential collective solutions – as they work to improve our communities.

We heard several things very clearly as we traveled the country, beginning with the need for improved collaboration between local and national organizations that too often find themselves working independently on the same issue in a given community. We heard inspiring stories about the impact nonprofit organizations have on individuals, families, and communities in every corner of our country and around the world. We have learned about reduced recidivism rates thanks to an innovative job-training program, the preservation of primate habitats in Central Africa, and a host of other success stories in between.

What has been as revealing as the substance of the discussions, and the thoughtful insights about the work of the sector, has been the response to Threads, and the enthusiasm with which people joined in the conversations. Threads participants, from both nonprofit and philanthropic organizations, also found benefit in the opportunity to engage one another in thoughtful conversations unrelated to the grant seeking and making process. A genuine interest was expressed in continuing that kind of dialogue as charities and foundations look for innovative solutions to some of our country’s most pressing problems.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, this process has highlighted the importance of looking beyond the challenges of today to consider what tomorrow will bring. In each community we heard – from organizations of every size and shape – that looking ahead, even just a year or two, is a luxury they simply do not have. The immediate demands of delivering services or providing programs, often in the face of static if not shrinking budgets, simply do not allow the opportunity to prepare for the future.

This needs to change and Threads has provided a boost in the right direction. Already, our Threads Minnesota partners – led by the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, Minnesota Council of Foundations, and the Minneapolis Foundation – are planning a follow up session to turn the Threads conversation into concrete next steps. We look forward to similar conversations taking place across America.

— by Geoffrey Plague

Moving Toward The Bright Spots

A new Star Wars movie is on the horizon but, once again, truth may be stranger than fiction. In June, NASA’s Dawn probe Across the country, collaboration is key to lighting up the sector. In Chicago, it was noted that partnerships with national movements and organizations can yield benefits in strategy, capacity, and resources. New York City and Miami was maneuvering its way through the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter when it spied some unusually bright spots on the surface of the dwarf planet Ceres. NASA casually referred to one as “a mountain with steep sides”; others claim it looks an awful lot like a three-mile tall pyramid.

Throughout our Threads community conversations, Independent Sector has been prospecting for bright spots – signs of life that point to a creative force capable of teaching us all something new and worthwhile. The protocol has been systematic and a selection of examples will be shared later this year. So, while it is too early to talk in terms of best practices or success stories per se, everywhere IS went we found glimmers of a better way and a better world.

In New York City, meaningful engagement with local communities was a common theme. What is meant by meaningful? Building grassroots capacity and telling stories of the community, to name just two examples.

Another recommendation: work across silos associated with a field of practice. Can a bakery also serve customers in need of mental health counseling and housing? Can a college find rehearsal space for a dance company that offers master classes in return? Stay tuned for the details.

In Los Angeles, formerly incarcerated youth shine when they go to Sacramento to advocate for policy change. In Silicon Valley, a coalition’s ability to “transform the thinking” about education outcomes is a critical success factor.

Threads conversations mentioned the work of the Organization for Black Struggle and Black Lives Matter to embrace organizations with similar objectives and use holistic approaches to help enact reform against prejudice. We heard that innovative organizing is linking religions, other established community-based organizations, organizers in Ferguson, MO, and the broader #blacklivesmatter movement.

Seeing the light sometimes depends on removing your dark glasses. A nonprofit working to protect primate habitat in Congo feared the worst when they learned a timber company was moving into the area. That is, until they took the initiative to meet with company representatives and enlisted their support to spare the trees that mattered. That was a particularly bright day.

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