Here's what you missed at this nonprofit leadership conference in the 'burbs - Generocity Philly

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Mar. 24, 2016 12:55 pm

Here’s what you missed at this nonprofit leadership conference in the ‘burbs

Discussion about risk and failure that probably would have benefited small community-based and grassroots organizations.

Philly Country Club in Gladwyne.

(Screenshot)

Gladwyne is a really nice Philadelphia suburb. It’s a town where the really nice streets are lined with really nice homes and really nice cars parked on really nice driveways.

It’s also really detached from the realities of city life, especially city life in marginalized communities. Yet, it’s where a leadership conference for Philadelphia nonprofits was held by consulting group RSM earlier this week, inside the ritzy Philadelphia Country Club.

Not exactly accessible for nonprofit leaders in the city — especially leaders within small community-based and grassroots organizations — without a car. So, why was it held in Gladwyne?

A Way To Donate cofounder and CEO Richard Binswanger, who has historically hosted the conference, was first to respond.

“We’ve switched from city to suburbs since we’ve done this,” he said. “What we’ve found is a certain part of the people we’re trying to bring — board members as well as CEOs — this is closer.”

The conference travels between the city and the suburbs, which is fair enough. But “people we’re trying to bring” to the conference doesn’t sit well, and shouldn’t for smaller nonprofits that might have board members or CEOs who don’t live in the suburbs.

But the suburbs, said Philadelphia Foundation President and CEO Pedro Ramos, will soon feel the same stings as the city.

"The inner ring suburbs of Philadelphia will eventually be feeling all the stresses we’ve often associated with the city."
Pedro Ramos

“We’ll find, increasingly, that the needs we’re trying to serve are going to be outside the city corridors,” Ramos said. “The inner ring suburbs of Philadelphia will eventually be feeling all the stresses we’ve often associated with the city — the so-called ‘inner city’ — over the years.”

While it’s hard to believe that Gladwyne will soon feel the effects of North Philly’s food deserts or the blight in Powelton Village and Mantua, Ramos said it’s a trend that’s been making its way to the East Coast from the West.

Anyway, the conference’s panel — Ramos, Habitat for Humanity‘s Corinne O’Connell and Drexel‘s Lucy Kerman — had some valuable information and insight to share about risk and failure.

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“You have to be not only ready to fail, but willing to fail and learn from it,” Kerman said. “To what extent do we feel comfortable [in the nonprofit sector] taking risks, failing at them, then telling our funders, boards and constituents that we took a chance, we thought outside of the box, we didn’t make our goal, we learned a lot and we’re going to pick ourselves up and try again?”

O’Connell agreed, but was quick to explain why failure isn’t as grandiose an idea in the nonprofit sector as it is in, say, the tech space.

“Funders in the government, foundations, major donors — they want to see outcomes,” she said. “Perhaps the envelope is starting to move with some funders who are willing to invest in an organization that could fail, but it hasn’t felt like there’s a lot of space for risk.”

The conversation is changing with social entrepreneurship, she said, but risk doesn’t “exactly feel like a comfortable space” just yet.

Ramos said that’s a misunderstanding. Philanthropic dollars are the “ultimate risk capital.”

Get someone in your organization who understands risk. And while you're at it, get a peer leader on your board.

“[Funders] are putting money into organizations that, even if they could, don’t have good measures of their outcomes,” he said. “I think when people talk about philanthropy in general and all its imperfections as being risk perverse, it obscures the reality that all philanthropic dollars are risk capital.”

So, Ramos said, here’s the solution: Get someone in your organization who understands risk. And while you’re at it, get a peer leader on your board.

“You’re heavy on lawyers and accountants and maybe donors if you’re lucky,” he said. “Rarely do you ask a peer, another executive from a nonprofit to be on your board. It’s unheard of. You need peers to help you run your organization as effectively and strategically as possible.”

Are executive at large nonprofits and foundations “peers” with those at smaller community-based and grassroots organizations? Kerman spoke to that a bit at the beginning of the conference, in reference to helping smaller organizations secure government contracts.

“It’s a matter of blending together the expertise we all have – universities, nonprofit, grassroots, civic associations,” she said. “And creating those networks that can seem like difficult challenges at this point.”

One holistic network tackling the city’s greatest challenges — a big beautiful tapestry that can never be woven if half of the fabric is missing.

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