Monday, July 20, 2009

What A Conference Can Do.......

When I come back from conferences, I usually have one of two feelings. The first could be that I just wasted a couple days away from my family and now I am angry because it appears that my kids don't recognize me and my dog barks at me like a stranger. Darn conference. The second feeling is one in which all of my ideas become clearer and I am somehow flying a little higher. Wow, my pants even fit a little better. I feel like the latter.

So, short post but am glad to be back from the Alliance for Nonprofit Management conference. I am more engaged in their work and also more engaged in some of mine. Those book ideas should now be more real, I hope. Look forward to next year's conference, which I am hoping they will have in NYC!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Rethinking the Way We Do Conferences - More Impact, Less Cost

I want to begin my post by saying that in all of the conferences that I attend, the Alliance conference is one of the best. This being my third one, I just enjoy the subject matter and the networking. I truly learn a great deal.

Now that said, I think the industry of conferences is a bit funny to me and I have thought this for a while. The definition I like of conference is "the act of conferring or consulting together; consultation, esp. on an important or serious matter". I think we meet the classical definition. Check.

I would add that to have a conference, the environment would need to be ideal. We could not have a conference in the middle of a tractor pull or in a nursery. But on the flip side we could not have a conference, no matter how awesome, at a ski resort in Geneva. To far removed. I think a majority of the conferences that I attend, if the above is a range, would lean toward the Geneva. They are expensive, they are far removed from the central core of what the practitioners are about. This distance can weigh negatively on the definition of conference above. Can we effectively meet the definition in an environment that is a little far removed from where we practice. Is location as much a detractor as heat or time of the year? I think so, if not more.

Alright John, nice musings but your all bun and no hot dog (been waiting to say that for some time....nice). I do have a solution. Why not pick a city and have our meetings in community settings. Could I have had a better ETM Affinity Group if I were giving it in a foundation conference room. How about our membership meeting at a community center. I heard the word social justice discussed several times....I think there would be no better way to meet the needs of those on the ground floor then to "conference" among them. I am excited about the possibility of labs that specific take us as capacity builders and apply ourselves. Can you imagine going to Kansas City, 200 conference goes, and working with 5-10 groups on specific issues and applying our "conference" work to them. Talk about experiential learning and simulation. Also, would be unprecedented.

Now lets talk about costs. Summer and Tom and others should be pumped about this idea. I cannot believe that anyone would believe that doing a conference at a Marriott would be anymore expensive then 3 days of trainings and discussions at local community spaces. And imagine the economic impact on those groups. I feel better about giving 10K to the local Boys and Girls Club than to the Hilton. Paris Hilton doesn't need our cash....

Now I know the arguments against, including that the location should match our "Sunday Best". My argument would be that the Sunday best is our actions, not the clothing. As the Alliance is seeking its new identity and the conference is that one public display of our work, how about we assign ourselves to this or other ideas that changes the dynamic and also may bring our wisdom and learning into a more suitable environment. Let me know how I can help!

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Chicken Things for the Soul

In the various times I have had to eat here at the conference, there has been a good deal of chicken. Chicken appears to be a customary meal or appetizer served at conferences and this one is no exception. My sense is that they could of just cooked them outside in the 117 degree heat. Summer Spencer should check and see if we can get a discount that way as we do not need to use the stove when cooking our food. By the way, she has been awesome but every speech, side conversation and stall conversation has stated that.

I think where I have been most inspired to this point is the strength in those wanting to Alliance to be "something". Working in turnaround, I see often that there are organizations in the similar state on the lifecycle who have the feeling of packing it in. Competition is too overwhelming. Challenges having been too touch. Not here. While you can sense some frustration, it is not in the statements and feelings of those stating that there is a need for capacity builders to share and congregate in a meaningful way. This would have to be a good feeling to the organizers and day-to-day of the Alliance. As it appears I almost day-to-day, feels good to me.

So as I had my chicken this afternoon and having left the membership committee (big "Ups" to my fellow committee members), I was most satisfied as I walked back to my room and thought about the energy that was there as we headed into the workshop phase. Then I fell asleep for three hours....Not sure if it was the chicken or the two days of affinity group and membership committee that kicked my butt.....

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

In Palm Springs....Hanging with My Nonprofit Nerd Friends

I made it to Palm Springs through a crazy plane experience where I was running through airports and sliding under closing plane doors. But I made it. The taxi driver who got me from the the airport to the hotel I think was crazy. I am not kidding, crazy. She read every billboard and store sign coming here and then thought I was a prophet because I read them with her. No kidding.

Now I am proud to say that I have been to Palm Springs 4 times and never on vacation. I have not swung one golf club in these parts, which the grass is thankful for I am sure. 3 conferences and then I stepped in for Colin Powell to speak at a youth rally. Met Gerald Ford and was on TV. I was a complete dud at the youth rally as 3000 youth in the crowd wondered who the weird looking guy is yelling "You Can Do It" and "Follow Your Dreams". I am sure there is a now young adult looking for me to say that I am the reason he is a billionaire and he wants to give me money. Or one looking to throw things at me.

I am pumped to be here. Not because I have spent several months on two Alliance committees planning certain things and now can rejoin my family soon (if they haven't moved out). I am glad to be here for a variety of reasons but the biggest is that for a couple days I will not have to do a couple things. In the outside world, as many who are attending this conference, we are probably regarded as an expert in some discipline of the nonprofit world. In this world, we speak to and are among many different types of people. Once they learn of who we are, the common questions we may get are many, but probably the same is many respects. Here are the questions we most likely get (as interpreted in my head):
  • "Oh, your into nonprofits. Can you help me raise money for the worst idea ever!"
  • "Oh, I serve on a board. Is there anyway I can take over everything and kill the others?"
  • "My nonprofit has like 2 days to live....can you help me?"
  • "Let me tell you what we do....(200 hours later...)...."let me now tell you about our programs...."
This week I get to retreat to my nonprofit "nerd-dom" with fellow nonprofit nerds and just be. Share some war stories and steal some ideas. Look forward to it. If only we had a nerd-ish Nonprofit Olympics like in the Revenge of the Nerds movie. Anyone for a Board Governance decathalon......

Monday, July 6, 2009

Challenges with Philanthrocapitalism - Selecting the Bright, Shiny Coin

Philanthrocapitalism, a relatively recent book by Matthew Bishop and Michael Green. Philanthrocapitalists are described as the new generation of billionaires who are reshaping the way they give - it's like business. Largely trained in the corporate world, these "social investors" are using big-business-style strategies and expecting results and accountability to match. This book and another in critique by fellow Wagner-ite, Michael Edwards, who states that there is a rising social and political influence of business and wealthy individuals, an encroachment of the market into every aspect of our lives and the potential erosion of older traditions of collective action, democratic accountability, solidarity and service.

I thought of these two books as I witnessed the event at the White House last week on the creation of the Social Innovation work. I am pleased that this effort is taking place, my fear is that this office will come victim to what always happens, long-serving organizations left out in the cold to those that are relatively new. Those listed in the room were New Profit Inc, Ashoka, Echoing Green, the Skoll Foundation, Harlem Children’s Zone, Robin Hood Foundation, KIPP Schools, Bridgespan Group, City Year, Salesforce Foundation, Sea Change Capital Partners,, Nurse Family Partnership, Atlantic Philanthropies, Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, WalMart, the Gap, the Ford Foundation and the Gates Foundation. Yes, I know that this list is selective and there were a few old-timers in the room, but the above list is what was advertised. No Red Cross. No Catholic Charities. No Lions Clubs? Yes, Lions Clubs, who give out more free glasses to the rural poor than any other organization in the United States. I guess they were not innovative enough. Look at a Lions Club 990 and you willl see an organization that uses little but gives a lot.

As you may have guessed, I have a problem with the way social innovation is being targeted. I am worried that social innovation means that you must be branded as new, rather than looking at models that have been around and are working but may are closer to a used sweater than an evening gown. In addition, it appears that all is needed to be socially innovative is to have some wealth behind you but not much else. Many of these models, while touting "business principles" have no more data to show effectiveness than many of our long-timers. In this Baby Boom era, we should pay attention to their creations, they have gotten us this far.