A Moment of Hope at the Classy Awards

“Hollywood has the Oscar, Broadway has Tony, and philanthropy has the Classys.” — AOL.com

The Classy Awards began in San Diego as a way to recognize outstanding charitable work in the community, but it has grown into a symposium featuring innovators and social sector leaders from all over the world. This year, Boston hosted the awards ceremony and the Collaborative, a two-day conference with showcases, speakers, and panels on social innovation.

Day one of the 2016 Collaborative + Classy Awards.

The Collaborative + Classy Awards may not be quite as glamorous as the Oscars or Tonys, but the work of social impact organizations rarely is. Classy Award Winners like The Mission Continues, Jhpiego, and Action Against Hunger work tirelessly to solve the world’s toughest problems. The slow struggle for progress in areas of disease, poverty, and inequality is often overshadowed by the latest disaster or setback. This is why the Classy Awards + Collaborative is so necessary. It unites the world’s social advocates to honor and celebrate what the world is doing right.

A Solemn Beginning

On June 12th, dozens of members of the Classy team took an early morning flight to Boston for the event. We were all excited to meet the incredible Finalists and speakers. Then, on the plane, we received news of the Orlando shooting.

It was a devastating context in which to begin an event meant to unite and inspire the social sector, but we knew that as organizers and hosts, we had to create a positive experience for the hundreds of nonprofit professionals, entrepreneurs, and funders joining us. Still, the cruelty of the attack hung over us as we made our final preparations.

Later that week, Classy co-founders Scot Chisholm and Pat Walsh began the Collaborative with a moment of silence for the victims of the shooting in Orlando. A thousand people bowed their heads and thought about the lives lost and what it meant for those of us still here. We couldn’t discuss moving the social sector forward without acknowledging the grief weighing us all down.

Chisholm and Walsh thanked the audience and the day began.

That morning’s keynote speaker was Sonal Shah, the executive director of Georgetown University’s Beeck Center for Social Impact and Innovation and the former director of the White House’s first Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. She kicked off the conference by showing us that “change is the new normal.”

Sonal Shah speaking at the Collaborative.

She pointed to the Black Lives Matter movement, as an example of how social change is moving from a linear model to a networked one. “We’re moving from top-down to bottom-up,” she said, explaining how citizens had used the online petition site, We The People, to mandate a government response on net neutrality. Shah encouraged the social impact sector to work as a collective body to influence government and shape the future of transportation, agriculture, and more.

But she also acknowledged the paralyzing scope of the problems we face.

“The big stuff is overwhelming,” said Shah. “Think about the little things you can do to make change happen, because that’s the opportunity you’ll have. What are the small things we can do that have tremendously large impact? That’s transformational.”

A Summit for Social Good

Over the next two days, the Collaborative showcased innovative social entrepreneurs transforming fields like medicine, wildlife protection, and international aid. One of the first speaker sessions was a conversation between Action Against Hunger CEO, Andrea Tamburini and Ray Offenheiser, President and CEO of Oxfam America. Both had recently attended the United Nations-hosted World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul. They spoke frankly about the challenges of the summit but shared that one step in the right direction was the allocation of more funding as unrestricted grants to on-the-ground organizations.

Andrea Tamburini of Action Against Hunger and Ray Offenheiser of Oxfam America.

Throughout the venue, nonprofits and social enterprises of all kinds shared their experiences and breakthroughs with other social advocates. Adam Garone, the founder of Movember, spoke about how to turn a cause into a popular movement. A panel of social entrepreneurs explained how their organizations were using human-centered design to provide better healthcare to impoverished communities. Meanwhile, in a space we called the Lab, Classy Award Finalists presented some of their most exciting programs.

Wherever you looked, there were social sector leaders learning from each other and making connections that traversed any one cause. By the end of the two days of speakers and sessions, everyone was exhausted but exhilarated.

The Latest Loss

The third and final day of the event was devoted to the Classy Awards ceremony, where Finalists, attendees, and the Classy team came together to announce the 10 Winners. Invigorated by the amazing conversations across so many cause sectors, it was a chance for these hard-working nonprofit professionals to enjoy themselves and celebrate an industry that so rarely gets a moment in the spotlight.

That day, however, news broke that Jo Cox, a British member of parliament and advocate for refugees of the Syrian civil war, had been shot and killed. Like so many of the honorees and attendees of the Collaborative + Classy Awards, she had devoted her life to alleviating suffering and improving society. One of the Collaborative speakers, Nathaniel Raymond of the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, had even worked with Cox when they were colleagues at Oxfam. He gave a short dedication to her that evening.

Nathaniel Raymond presenting at the Classy Awards.

Behind the scenes, the Classy team had a dilemma. It didn’t feel right to move on from Orlando so quickly, but we struggled to agree on how to acknowledge the event with meaning. To begin the second half of the ceremony, Chisholm and Walsh were set to say a few words on the tragedy but moments before they took the stage, Ed Trujillo approached them backstage. Trujillo has worked on Classy’s customer success team for the past two years and has helped create an office culture that welcomes and celebrates the LGBT community.

Ed’s Request

A minute later, Classy’s founders introduced Ed to the crowd.

“Now listen,” Ed began. “A moment of silence would be wonderful, but I come from a community that is not silent: we are proud. And what I think we need more than a moment of silence is a moment of love. I want you all to look to the people around you and I want you to tell them, ‘I love you.’”

A roomful of formal-attired nonprofit professionals, entrepreneurs, funders, and Classy team members looked at each other. Up until now, this had been an inspiring but subdued ceremony. The crowd had watched videos of the incredible work Winners were doing all over the world, but they hadn’t bargained for audience participation.

Instead of silence, the room erupted in cheers and applause. Attendees said the word “love” to people they’d only met the day before, acquaintances hugged, and many of us cried.

“Because I guarantee you what those 49 people would have wanted to do was say one more time, ‘I love you.’ And what we need now is no more moments of silence. We need people to talk. We need action. We need people to make a difference.”

The crowd punctuated Ed’s words with more cheers.

Ed Trujillo speaks to the Classy Awards audience.

“You all in here can make a difference, and I love you for it. Thank you.”

Ed’s request reminds us that we all have a choice. We can sit and be silent and accept the world as it is or we can do something uncomfortable and maybe change it, if only for a moment.

We had spent the past few days discussing ways and means, measures of impact and models of disruption, but none of it mattered without hope. Ed showed us the greatest strength we have when faced with destruction, terror, and despair: the conviction that it doesn’t have to be this way.