7 things we learned at Our Common Future 2017

Co-presented by Independent Sector, the Council of Michigan Foundations, and the Michigan Nonprofit Association, Our Common Future 2017 brought together some of the country’s (and the world’s) greatest thinkers, doers, dreamers, and idealists representing nonprofits, foundations, corporations, and social enterprises. The challenge: The future can’t be stopped, but it can be steered — so how do we take the wheel?

Unsurprisingly, there are many ways up the mountain when we talk about shaping the future we want to have as a society. And with everyone from Mo Rocca to Krista Tippett speaking on the mainstage plus breakout sessions led by organizations including Ashoka, the Salesforce Foundation, Planned Parenthood, and Fund the People, there are a lot of people climbing with us. Read on for 7 of our key takeaways from Our Common Future 2017.

7. The 2020 census is going to be a big deal. A really big deal.

In 2014, Congress ruled that the 2020 U.S. Census would maintain a price tag consistent with the 2010 Census — not adjusting for inflation. Fast forward to 2017, when the previous administration’s budget request for 2020 was cut by 10% (that’s 10% of $12.5 billion). This year also saw the Government Accountability Office designate the upcoming 2020 Census as a “High Risk” for failure.

Why does this matter for nonprofits? Institutions across the board derive much of their funding from census data — this data tells the government where to allocate services and funds for development. As Forefront puts it, “Inaccurate census data threatens to disenfranchise those undercounted groups and regions, undermining the basic political equality that is central to our democracy.” Pushing for this equity will need to happen at the local level.

The 2020 Census is going to be a big deal. A really big deal. #CommonFuture17 Click To Tweet

6. We agree on 80% of the issue, but it’s the other 20% that sparks action

Casey Woods, who runs the nonprofit Arms with Ethics, calls this the “no-brainer space.” In her work with finding common ground and creating solutions on one of the country’s most divisive issues (gun violence), Woods has found that finding neutral language and establishing common ground are two of the main steps towards resolving any difficult conversation. Regardless of whether this conversation hovers around public policy or office politics, exercising radical empathy is the key to establishing trust. Once the dialogue gets rolling, nonprofits must figure out what issues “will get everyone off the bench.” For Arms with Ethics, this is preventing the flow of guns into crime.

We agree on 80% of the issue — it's the 20% that sparks action. @armswithethics #CommonFuture17 Click To Tweet

5. “Frustrate them at a rate they can stand”

Tying in with Casey Woods’s approach to difficult conversations, Mikaela Seligman of AchieveMission sees the flip side of the coin, which is to challenge peers and colleagues for good.

Whether you’re the executive director of your mid-size nonprofit or the intern at a large foundation, the capacity for leadership is an essential tool to develop, especially when navigating organizational change. Of course, as we can learn from so many things of the past (Pet Rocks, Friendster), change is crucial for staying relevant and functional. Creating some frustration is crucial for finding the solution to a challenge within your organization, but equally important is having the framework to contain that frustration so that the work can be done without your team cracking under pressure.

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4. It’s not your organization’s programs; it’s the people running the programs

“Talent is a dirty word in this sector,” says Lisa Brown Morton, President & CEO of Nonprofit HR before delivering the good news: “Increasingly it’s becoming less dirty.” While it may be sexier to talk about the programs offered by your nonprofit rather than the people running them, that dynamic has to change in order for nonprofits to retain top talent, decrease the rate of burnout, and advance their missions. If you’re retaining an entry-level millennial at their average rate of 1.8 years, that means less than every 2 years will see you onboarding new talent and not nurturing them long enough to see your investment pay off with creative contributions. Keep your talent sustainable, and this will help your nonprofit to also remain sustainable.

Where can this be addressed? Budget, budget, budget. Investing in professional development for employees is one line item that Morton says should never be added as an afterthought or the first to be cut. In a separate session, Sarida Scott — the Executive Director of Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD) — says that even if budget is limited, humanizing factors in management (such as flexible hours, weekly one-on-one check-ins, or even an office M&Ms budget) have helped her see zero turnover in her time at the helm of her organization.

Oh, and check your GlassDoor reviews — donors will.

Keep your talent sustainable to keep your nonprofit sustainable. #CommonFuture17 Click To Tweet

3. Impact is the key performance indicator, but it’s not one-size-fits-all

One thing you learn after encountering a few hundred people in a few days: Everyone has a different definition for “capacity building.” The term is most often associated, however, with another buzzword: “Impact.”

Rusty Stahl of Fund the People (whose breakout session included Sarida Scott’s insight seen in our previous takeaway) draws the direct line between investing in talent and banking on impact. A familiar yet vital theme heard in many of the sessions we attended, at both the breakout and the mainstage level, is that without clear goals and metrics to guide an organization’s goals, you’re essentially spinning your wheels.

This becomes especially vital for your board, which ought to serve as your “organizational sense-maker” and help to discern which issues matter most to your organization’s capacity and impact. Work with your board to help them understand the perspective they need to see the proverbial three-steps-ahead for your organization in order to reach the decisions that move your nonprofit’s needle forward.

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2. The new nonprofits are baking tech into their DNA

Tech for Common Good, a cross-sector collaboration launched by Independent Sector to understand and advance tech adoption and utilization in the social sector, identifies several trends that shape their work. At the baseline, organizations tend to have one full-time employee for every $100,000 of budget, and one tech-focused FTE for every $1 million (if not more). This leaves organizations with budgets of under $500,000 relying predominantly on pre-existing tools for productivity, design, security, accounting, and fundraising.

Yet as “millennial nonprofits” show, having tech woven into the DNA of an organization is something that can happen regardless of that organization’s size, type, or location. Cloud-based services also rule over traditional software licensing models. What’s the difference? As TCG puts it, “Legacy organizations discuss tech in the context of performing a function or a process, whereas the newer wave of social enterprises sees tech as vital to mission advancement.”

Millennial nonprofits are weaving tech into the DNA of their organizations. #CommonFuture17 Click To Tweet

1. The future is looking pretty awesome

If you leave a conference like Common Future with no other takeaway, it’s that there are people from San Francisco to South Dakota affecting an incredible amount of social impact around the country. If you need proof of that, look no further than the ongoing efforts to revitalize Detroit. While there were plenty of opportunities last week to get granular with policy, performance, and process, taking a moment to meet the 2017 Ashoka Fellows, to see a ballroom full of social sector professionals fall for slam poet Chace Morris and percussionist Chi Amen-Ra, or to appreciate that you just became best friends with 5 strangers at a round table in a conference room is enough to remind you why you do what you do.

Biggest takeaway from #CommonFuture17: The future is looking pretty awesome. Click To Tweet

Were you at Our Common Future? Tweet us your highlights with the hashtags #WhaledIt and #CommonFuture17 (and check out our Instagrams from last week, including an evening meeting some of our oceanic friends at The Henry Ford)!