A Moment in Time – Is the Nonprofit Sector Ready to Grab the Brass Ring?

As I have listened to sessions at this year’s Social Impact Exchange Conference looking for something to write this blog about, I am struck by the fact that I keep hearing about this being “a moment in time” for the sector.  From Heather McLeod Grant’s session on networks as the future for scale and impact in the sector, to the panel on Black Male Achievement and the pitches by organizations like Expeditionary Learning and the Center to Advance Palliative Care, we seem to collectively believe that this is a moment in time ripe for opportunity to knock the ball out of the park when it comes to scale.

For palliative care, health reform has opened the doors for new ways of health care to be provided with a focus on quality of care.  The President has signaled that the country has permission to speak openly about race and bias opening the door for a diverse cross-sector movement focused on improving the lives of men and boys of color.  For nonprofits and donors, the appetite and imperative has arrived for relational strategies to drive scaled impact – and for both, a strategy that includes the growth of organizations and the leveraging of networks.

Yet with all of this opportunity in this moment, based on some of the other sessions at the conference, we in the sector may not be ready to take full advantage.  Antony Bugg-Levine of the Nonprofit Finance Fundcontinues to help the sector understand the critical importance of attending to sustainability as scale occurs (I have great respect for NFF’s commitment to beat this drum for the sector over many years).  During the “Scaled Impact through Movement Building” panel and in the network mapping activity during “The Power of Networks to Drive Large Social Change” session, participants struggled to include the private sector as part of a network solution.  How are we not thinking about the private sector as partners given the complexity of the problems we are trying to solve?  How is it there are only three government sector representatives in the audience?  Given the wicked problems we are trying to solve that are affected by multiple sectors, why are not all of the sectors at this conference?

Funders in the room are in many cases for the first time trying on the idea that they might need to be visionary, understanding, clear, and agile (VUCA) to borrow Jacob Harold’s language during his presentation on “medium data”.  As Craig Reigel, CFO for Nonprofit Finance Fund points out, many if not most foundations do not align the intent of their giving (e.g., growth capital) with the requirements they make of grantees, and the restrictions placed on their grants.  This impedes nonprofits ability to fully leverage different types of revenues.

And as Jacob Harold told us again (another long-time drum beater on the issue of transparency in the sector), we as a sector are still not comfortable with the idea (let alone the fact) that some organizations are better than others and some donors are better than others.  His vision for a data vehicle that gets some of the basics right (goals, strategies, outcomes, etc.) is absolutely necessary to respond to the call for taking successful innovation to scale.

“A room full of people of great intent.”  That’s how Craig Reigel of Nonprofit Finance Fund described the SIEattendees during the “Financial Sustainability at Scale” panel.  Can we move from intention to action as a sector in this moment in time?   As this is a moment in time that I imagine won’t last long, what is it going to take for the sector to grab the brass ring and realize the opportunity to take successful innovation to scale?


Lisa Jackson is a Senior Advisor for New Profit and the Co-Founder and Principal of Jackson-Ellis Associates, an emerging philanthropic advising practice.