Threads: Between the Lines

“So, tell me, what were the real lessons of the Threads conversations?” asked a long-time Independent Sector member as she approached a table stacked high with copies of Threads: Insights from the Charitable Community.

We’ve heard many versions of this question since we released the Threads report at our conference last fall. The report summarized, candidly, feedback from more than 2,000 nonprofit and foundation leaders who participated in one of 15 community conversations that explored the trends and challenges of our sector. The dozens of issues raised range from a funding environment that incentivizes competition and short sightedness among grantees to the need to engage stakeholders in more meaningful ways. Much of the feedback is a call to action for members of our sector to work together to solve the challenges that are getting in the way of delivering on our missions.

Think Big

“Think big” echoed through all of the conversations and became the refrain that encompassed – and addressed – the many challenges identified by Threads participants.

In some cases, the “think big” theme came across as a general rallying cry. More often, it was named as a necessary strategy and a key springboard for success. There were many variations on a fundamental premise: too often, we are too quick to narrow the scope of our organizations’ work based on what we think we can accomplish, rather than looking – with clear eyes – at what needs to be done to deliver on our missions. The assertion was that acknowledging the full scope of the problems we are trying to solve is the first and necessary step to a breakthrough. The breakthrough can be partnering with groups across subject areas, engaging the community in new ways, or planning against a longer term time horizon. All things we know to be important but that can be elusive without a powerful catalyst.

This theme reminded me of an interview I did for Independent Sector’s advocacy study, Beyond the Cause. A senior government relations executive had moved from a Fortune 100 company to a nonprofit and one of the biggest culture shifts he faced was around planning. He was used to working against a 25-year plan because, he said, many of the big goals take that long to achieve. He had noticed that a common nonprofit practice is to reaffirm an ambitious, inspirational goal every 3-5 years and to plan relevant activities around that goal. He scratched his forehead as he noted that a long term plan – one that specifies what it would take to achieve that goal – is all too rare in the nonprofit context.

The think big theory was proven again and again in the stories of success and innovation that Threads participants identified. In one example, Communities in Schools was built on the premise that kids need all kinds of support in order to achieve in school. They have developed deep relationships with very different partners that allow them to meet a range of needs, from eye glasses to food to mentors. In another example, the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project in the Republic of Congo faced a turning point when its founders realized that they could not achieve their long term goals without working with timber companies, turning former adversaries into partners out of necessity.

We struggled with this

One of the major issues to emerge from the 15 Threads conversations was the lack of communication among organizations in the charitable community.

When asked to describe challenges facing the sector, participants were articulate about how dialogue between organizations is not as robust as it should be if we are to facilitate coordination around overlaps and gaps in services, spread innovation, and seed collaboration. This lack of dialogue played out in real time when Threads participants were asked to identify “bright spots” – stories of success and innovation. Some groups were prolific in their answers, most were less so. On the worksheets used to capture the examples, one group wrote “we struggled with this” in lieu of providing examples of bright spots. Some participants told us that they don’t know what’s happening in other organizations and so aren’t in a position to share their stories of success or otherwise.

This presents a call to action to all of us within the sector. Insights, success, and – yes – failures should be the currency of our conversations with each other. Yes, much has been said about the importance of storytelling and the difficulty in finding the capacity to write up our experiences. This is a powerful reminder that the target audiences for such communications are not only our funders and our clients, but also our colleagues so that we can help the field to move forward.

Can we change…

The majority of the comments gathered through the Threads conversations were phrased in the third person, for example, “nonprofits” face this challenge or “foundations” should do more of that.

Every now and then, there was a comment in the first person: “Can we change…” and “we need to get better at….” Sifting through the 3,000 plus comments from this project, “we” is the word that stands out the most. It is inherently optimistic as it shows that the author shares responsibility for creating the solution. It also implies a recognition that the people working in sector organizations are, in fact, a “we”. And it is this community of people who will carry us forward.

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