3 Lessons about the Future of Nonprofits from New Profit’s Gathering of Leaders 2018

In mid-May, I attended New Profit’s Gathering of Leaders, which is a 2-day conference with 300+ social innovators and counterparts in business, government, philanthropy, media, technology and academia to talk about and work on our nation’s most pressing challenges.

There were 3 general lessons I picked up from the Gathering:

  1. We’re the ones we have been waiting for. No one is coming to save us.
  2. Systems change requires a new type of collaborative approach: Systems Entrepreneurship.
  3. We have the power to use technology to divide us or to build a more equitable society.

We’re the ones we have been waiting for. No one is coming to save us.

The first theme came as a reverberation from last year’s Gathering, which was a reaction to the new presidential administration. There was a lot of talk about how we must act and “we are the ones we’ve been waiting for.”

And there was a lot of conversation about equity in philanthropy, with a whole entire track at the Gathering focused on “Capitalizing Diverse Leaders.”

I had the opportunity to connect with many leaders of color who are running amazing organizations throughout the country, and the common thread among our experiences has been our collective struggle with fundraising.

My friend Jared Chung, founder and CEO of Careervillage.org, nicely summed it up: “For leaders of color, you’re trying to change the system while the system is affecting you, and that sucks.”

At the same time, at the Gathering, we were celebrating New Profit’s 20th anniversary and reflecting on some of the successful organizations that received catalytic, early funding from New Profit, such as College Summit, LIFT, and Health Leads.

At the Gathering, I thought to myself, “Who is going to be our New Profit? Was there going to be a Vanessa Kirsch, a forward-thinking funder, for my organization who could provide that catalytic funding and partnership?”

And then I remembered: “No one is going to come and save us.” And I’m realizing that our generation of social entrepreneurs can’t use the same playbook that Wendy Kopp and J.B. Schramm used 15 and 20 years ago. But that means we’re constantly needing to figure out and create our own playbook, while trying to build innovative organizations.

Systems change requires a new type of collaborative approach: Systems Entrepreneurship.

Another focus at the Gathering was on “systems entrepreneurship,” which is a new phrase that describes collaborative field building that stems from the needs of the community. It’s vague because the concept is new / emerging.

I had the honor of speaking on a panel about Systems Entrepreneurship Leadership Journeys with some very accomplished social entrepreneurs: J.B. Schramm, founder of College Summit (now Peer Forward); Sam Cobbs, founder of First Place for Youth; Anne Douglass, executive director of Institute for Early Education Leadership and Innovation at UMass Boston; and Sara DiTroia, formerly at New Profit and Health Leads.

My general takeaway from conversations about systems entrepreneurship is that people don’t quite know what to make of it. Early generations of social entrepreneurs were like lone wolves. These organizations had founders as the heart and the face of the organization, to almost cult-like status. Can you think of Teach for America without imagining Wendy Kopp’s story? The lore of the lone (white) founder toiling away in a basement to bootstrap the organization is a story that our generation of social entrepreneurs is trying to change.

My clear takeaways from these systems entrepreneurship conversations is that systems change requires:

  • A more collaborative approach (vs. a lone wolf strategy and mythology)
  • New frameworks and playbooks
  • A technology infrastructure to measure and evaluate impact

We have the power to use technology to divide us or to build a more equitable society

There were two presenters that talked generally about the future with trends that included increasing internet usage across the board and the rise of solar power, AI, automation and its effects on society like extending human life spans. In an increasingly digital world, where we’re talking about sci-fi topics like human-machine symbiosis, we need our leaders to be digitally literate, and we need digital tools and systems that meet our community where they’re at.

The conversations that followed reminded me about Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before Congress in April, and how confused our representatives seemed to be about what and how Facebook and I’d say technology companies in general operate, do business, and make money.

Our leaders must be digitally literate if we want our country to continue making progress.

AND we must also continue to build technology systems that actually promote an equitable society. So far much of the focus of technology has been on extracting capital, and we’re at the point now where we can start to leverage technology for society’s most pressing problems.

Looking forward

These notes are just some of my quick reflections from the Gathering, and I hope they spark additional discussion, reactions, and most importantly actions. Already as I’ve shared some of these thoughts with peer social entrepreneurs, we’ve begun to brainstorm and organize ourselves to make the sector more equitable. And I’m going to write a few more follow-up posts that go deeper on equity in philanthropy, systems entrepreneurship, and tech for social justice.

Thank you so much to New Profit for not only organizing and curating another thought-provoking Gathering, but for also giving me the opportunity to attend.

And thanks to all of the entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and supporters who pushed boundaries and planted seeds for a better future.