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Sector Togetherness, Refreshed: Nonprofit Summit 2013

Nonprofit Summit, on May 20 and 21. Hardly a repeat performance, this year’s refreshed Summit gave attendees a more interactive, customizable, and intimate experience, the better to work with our lineup of nationally-recognized speakers, consultants, and cause community professionals.

Among the changes: replacing traditional keynote speeches with four conversation-starting Ignite Presentations; sidelining discipline-specific tracks in favor of idea-driven BreakThrough Sessions and highly practical Solve-It Sessions; and adding Funder Roundtables, a brand-new chance for candid conversation with philanthropic leaders. In addition, GCN partnered with Young Nonprofit Professionals Network of Atlanta and Turner Broadcasting to launch the 30 Under 30 program, which honors young sector leaders at our Awards Luncheon and engages them in two exclusive sessions.


Ignition and Liftoff

To set the tone for our new Summit experience, GCN took our headliners off the ballroom stage, transforming one-way keynote speeches into stimulating opportunities for back-and-forth dialog: a 20-minute presentation followed by at least 30 minutes of Q&A.

On day one, Corporate Social Responsibility guru and philanthropic legend Ann Cramer discussed the principles and practicalities of “Work-Life Alignment,” a healthier alternative to the familiar idea of “work-life balance,” which pits “work” and “life” against each other and leaves us unfulfilled in both. Alignment means finding work—or something in your work—that benefits your personal life: “As you do more, let more do with you,” Cramer said. That could mean spearheading an office recycling program, or organizing a volunteer day for the department: “Find your voice in the cause you care about,” and use that voice to unite your personal and professional selves.

“Find your voice in the cause you care about.''  
Ann Cramer
Senior Consultant, Coxe Curry & Associates

Meanwhile, Rhonda Lowry, Turner Broadcasting’s vice president of emerging social web technologies, revealed the human side of tech trends in a talk called, “The Bleeding Edge of Why.” Among the flux of the cyber-landscape, Lowry said, there’s only one “emerging technology” you can count on everyone having: a human brain. By understanding how the brain seeks out meaning, responds to social cues, and develops new habits, we can understand how to motivate people in any forum. “Think about the rituals of the day,” said Lowry, and find ways to intervene. Facebook, she said, has become a daily routine for people because it’s rich with purposeful “triggers”: your brain lights up every time you update your feed because every comment or “like” represents a meaningful social connection. Assign a community manager who knows “how to send those triggers, how to gently look for and make those connections,” and the online conversation around your nonprofit will run wild.

The second day of Ignite Presentations featured author Ken Sharpe on finding the “practical wisdom” to guide your efforts, and Julie Dixon explaining the “Powerful Currency of Influence.” Sharpe, a professor of political science at Swarthmore, explained how smart choices depend on more than bare-bones rules of conduct—the best decision-making requires traits like courage and empathy, skills like active listening, and a framework that encourages their development.

Julie Dixon, deputy director for Georgetown University’s Center for Social Impact Communications, explained how “influence” is “a kind of currency you can’t find in your wallet”: a cultural asset equaling the number of people you connect with and the quality of those connections. What makes influence so powerful is its cascading effect: “Imbedded in one person’s influence is a whole network of skills, talent, and resources waiting to be tapped.” That is, every follower has his own followers—an otherwise invisible population you can reach by asking others to use their influence on your behalf. “The common wisdom is that people [online] want to appear good, and smart, and philanthropic,” said Dixon. “But beyond that, people want to lead.” An easy-to-share call to action or proof of impact—an upcoming volunteer opportunity, a photo from the field,  anything that’s shareable and shows your mission in action—gives them the opportunity to lead.

“The common wisdom is that people [online] want to appear good, and smart, and philanthropic. But beyond that, people want to lead.”
Julie Dixon
Deputy Director – Center for Social Impact Communication, Georgetown University

Breaking Good

BreakThrough Sessions offered cutting-edge perspectives on everything from board fundraising to servant leadership to movement-building, tapping the expertise of outfits like Big Duck Consulting, Social Mission Architects, Living Walls, and CURE Childhood Cancer.

Author, consultant and business coach Sarah Robinson described the qualities of a “Fiercely Loyal Community,” and how to attract one. A “fiercely loyal” following, she said, “means extensions of your staff. It means free [word-of-mouth] advertising. They recruit others. They build your credibility. They’re guinea pigs for your new ideas. They’re your happiest stakeholders.” Robinson’s shortcuts for fostering the pride, trust, and passion that drive a Fiercely Loyal Community included acting on follower feedback, or starting a project together that they can make their own. Robinson cited brewery Sam Adams’s decision to design a beer on their Facebook page, putting every aspect to a vote, documenting the process online, and debuting the result at the South by Southwest festival: “Not only did it make the community feel important, they were on the edge of their seat waiting to get their hands on that beer!”

Three local philanthropists and two social enterprise experts took on new funding models in a discussion called “Beyond Grants & Philanthropy: An Exploration of Social Impact Investing in Georgia.” Quinetha Frasier and Darrell Glasco, both of Social Mission Architects, kicked off the discussion with a look at the for-profit schemes helping fund nonprofits like Goodwill (thrift stores) and Open Hand (Good Measure Meals). “Don’t think of social enterprise as something far, far away,” said Frasier. Instead, try taking a fresh look at your mission: “The Greyston Foundation’s mission is to give teens work skills and entrepreneurial skills,” Frasier said. When they opened a bakery, it wasn’t simply to generate income, but to fulfill that mission: “They sell brownies to employ teenagers, not employ teenagers to sell brownies.”

When the Greyston Foundation opened a bakery, it wasn’t simply to generate income, but to fulfill their mission: “They sell brownies to employ teenagers, not employ teenagers to sell brownies.”
Quinetha Frasier
Social Enterprise Funding Strategist, Social Mission Architects

The BreakThrough session closing the Summit featured back-to-back field reports from the founders of two young, pioneering Georgia organizations that are “Building Something Beautiful”: Lamon Luther, a custom furniture shop that employs the homeless, and Living Walls, a public art initiative brightening communities through street art. Backed by a mohawked keyboard player, Lamon Luther’s founder Brian Preston shared his personal story of unemployment, and how his struggle led him to discover the struggle of others—in particular, an encampment of homeless people behind a local mall. Preston hired a member to help him salvage scrap wood and build some furniture, and it’s since become a business, adding more employees from the homeless community—though Preston emphasizes that it isn’t a charity: “These men are earning every penny they make.”

Soothing Solves

Solve-It Sessions gave attendees a chance to learn, talk through, and try out  a variety of problem-solving strategies, in three different formats: 1-2-1 coaching, with an expert consultant and a specific problem to tackle; Huddles, small-group roundtable discussions on a single subject like “Better Board Engagement”; and Talk ‘n Try presentations, in which a whole-room conversations brought big, high-minded topics—collaboration, burn-out, “Creating a Culture of Measurement”—down to earth.

“The plan would have worked, if not for five nonprofits fighting over dumb stuff.” 
Phil Baldwin 
President & CEO , CredAbility 

One Talk ‘n Try asked whether “collaboration” is more “buzzword or effective strategy.” John Berry, CEO and ED of St. Vincent de Paul Georgia, led the panel discussion distinguishing collaborations “truly driven by needs” from those driven by “what everyone else is doing.” Bill Bolling, the ED of Atlanta Community Food Bank, said he’s collaborated with “almost everyone in the room,” and claimed an equal number of collaboration successes and failures. The resulting lessons: “You’ve got to create a win-win. You’ve got to define expectations—really define them: what we all want to get out of the collaboration. You’ve got to measure outcomes. You’ve got to learn and grow. You’ve got to identify your fears.”

Phil Baldwin, president and CEO of CredAbility, reinforced Bolling’s points with his story of collaboration failure, illustrating how good intentions and common interests couldn’t overcome a difference in expectations—leaving a group of poor farmers with no way to get their goods to market. “The plan would have worked,” he said, “if not for five nonprofits fighting over dumb stuff.”

As nonprofit professionals, we learn to stretch resources masterfully: “People see that and applaud. But it also promotes an austerity mindset.”
Yolanda Watson Spiva
Executive Director , Project GRAD Atlanta

At another Talk ‘n Try, “Save Yourself,” Project GRAD CEO and ED Yolanda Watson Spiva shared the story of her near-burnout experience with a crowd that could definitely identify: “I drive myself crazy because I just say yes,” Spiva declared. As nonprofit professionals, she said, we learn to stretch resources masterfully: “People see that and applaud. But it also promotes an austerity mindset.” That mindset leads many in the sector to stretch themselves to the limits “financially, mentally, and socially.”

“People will say, ‘This organization can’t survive without you.’ But they can,” she said, adding, “There are people who can’t do without you: they are called your family. I hate to say it, but if you get hit by a bus today, [your organization] will send flowers, but they will post your position immediately.”

Rounding It Out

New features joined returning events like the Revolutions Awards Luncheon, the nonprofit vendor exposition, and the poolside Nonprofit Networking Reception. First on the list was Funder Roundtables, which let attendees get to business first thing on day one, sitting them down with reps from foundations, banks, and other philanthropies to discuss financial matters in a low-pressure setting.

Also new: the 30 Under 30 program, designed in partnership with Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN) Atlanta and Turner Broadcasting, which recognized and rallied the sector’s youngest starts. Two exclusive workshops brought the cohort together, led by YNPN leaders and the former ED of Wren’s Nest House Museum, Lain Shakespeare, who became director of the ailing National Historic Landmark at age 23. Shakespeare spoke to the importance of a “Person-First” perspective—especially when selling an abstract idea like museum preservation: “If donors have to ask, ‘Why should I support this controversial museum?’ you’ve already lost.” By adopting a people-first focus (“Serve people, not institutions”), Shakespeare gave Wren’s Nest’s mission a practical, humanizing, easy-to-understand makeover: “We help the kids in our neighborhood become great storytellers.” The new mission led to programming, partnerships, and donor interest that turned Wren’s Nest around.

In addition, all recipients of the 30 Under 30 distinction received a plaque at the Awards Luncheon on day two. That ceremony also saw GCN board member Joe Iarocci handing out GCN’s Revolutions Awards, honoring individuals and organizations achieving transformative impact. Calling it “the funnest part of being on the GCN board,” Iarocci bestowed plaques (and a $1,000 check, courtesy of sponsor Warren Averett + GH&I) to Outstanding Nonprofit Leader Wayne McMillan, president & CEO of Bobby Dodd Institute; Outstanding Nonprofit Board Leader Allen Nelson, board chairman for the Atlanta Ballet; and Outstanding Nonprofit Organization Kate’s Club. The Harvard Business School Club of Atlanta returned once again to hand out Social Enterprise Scholarships to Harvard’s executive education program; this year’s winners were J.D. McCrary of The International Rescue Committee in Atlanta, Richelle Patton of Tapestry Development Group, Eric Robbins of Camp Twin Lakes, and Jeffrey Tapia of Latin American Association.

Until Next Year!

At the end of a busy two days, attendees headed back to their offices with notebooks and heads full of ideas, and a stack of new connections to hit up for partnership opportunities, needed services, and general support. Though the sector is still buzzing with the ideas generated at this year’s event, plans for next year’s summit are already underway. Nonprofit Summit 2014, promising even more of the innovative formats and attendee-first thinking that made this year’s Summit our most engaging yet.

For more from Summit 2013, check out our photo albums on Flickr

Marc Schultz is Contributing Editor for Georgia Nonprofit NOWAdditional reporting by Casey Bruce and Tommy Pearce.


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