How non-profits can support social change – lessons from Net Impact, part II

Photo Credit: Net Impact, Facebook Page

This is the second and last part of my recap from the Net Impact conference this year. Read the first about career lessons for Millennials.

It’s easy to assume that by virtue of being a non-profit, there is an inherent interest in social change. Yet with the social-impact landscape changing, we have to make sure we are deliberately focusing on improving the world around us. Ironically, this requires us to focus on how we work internally; that our mission, actions, and relationships all move us forward.  Here are a few ideas from Net Impact that stood out that non-profits need to pay attention to:

Invest in talent

On the Developing Top Talent in the Sector panel, Associate Director of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Rafael Lopez boldly addressed problematic practices he noticed throughout the sector. Encouraging your employees to apply for food stamps because you don’t want to pay them a decent wage? Unethical. Not recruiting and retaining the best employees for fear of upsetting foundations? Cowardly. The bottom line is that when you are serving people in need, they require the BEST support possible in order to move forward.

Additionally, people are moving between sectors, meaning that the idea of having one employee be with you for 10 or 15 years simply isn’t realistic. As a result, how we treat our employees affects all organizations who have also committed to social change. Focusing on supporting employees from a variety of backgrounds (diversity, Rafael mentioned, is where for-profits have the nonprofit sector beat) must become a priority.

Generate your own revenue

A big concern with wanting to spend more money on talent is that foundations will be upset about overhead and we’ll end up losing money. However, during the Five Things I Wish I Knew When I Launched My Social Enterprise panel, a common trend that emerged among the panelist was their weariness of foundations. Darell Hammond noted that the biggest shift his seen in funding practices: before it was funding nonprofits that had a strong strategy, now it’s funding nonprofits that fit into a foundation’s strategy. While this may not seem like a big deal, the result is a very different dynamic between organizations and foundations. The moderator of the discussion even went so far as to suggest that the audience, full of MBAs who likely wanted to work in foundations, not even bother as they are much too difficult to change.

As a result, the panelists, all of whom had interesting ways of funding their organizations, strongly encouraged leaders to focus on generating their own revenue or to explore strategic partnerships/investments that allow you to maintain your autonomy.

Focus on your supporters

Some people think that play is luxury, so they will never support KaBoom! Some people think freelancing is only for rich people, so they will never support the Freelancers Union. In the words of Sara Horowitz, fuck them. We spend a lot of time trying to convince people that our work is of value, but the time you spend doing that is time that could be spent nurturing your supporters and strengthening your community. We have to be comfortable knowing that there are people who will not see the value in our work yet our shared vision of change should push us forward.

What I enjoyed most about these conversations is that they move beyond inspiration and mission and speak to the very real challenges in the sector and in our work. Hopefully, we’ll have more of these conversations outside of conferences and within our organizations.

What other ideas should we explore in the non-profit sector?