5 Reasons for Hope From a Gathering of Nonprofit Leaders

People who set out to change the world often get the feeling they may have to settle for a few square feet.

Poverty, violence, hunger, disease and injustice are made of resilient stuff, to say nothing of self-interest, bureaucracy and sheer complexity.

That's why an event like this year's Nonprofit Management Institute conference is so welcome. For two days, some of the best thinkers in the nonprofit world expanded its horizons.

Brought together on the Stanford campus by the Stanford Social Innovation Review, they offered hope, inspiration and best of all, practical techniques that gave attendees renewed reason to believe that big change is achievable.

Here are some of the highlights.

1. The man who happily gave away his last $30 million. Conference presenter James R. Doty was born into poverty, the son of an alcoholic father and an invalid mother. He grew up to be a neurosurgeon, as well as an investor in a medical device startup that made him very rich. He then lost his personal fortune in the dot-com crash, but kept a promise to donate $30 million worth of stock to charity.

Doty is the founder of Stanford's Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education, or CCARE. As Doty says, much evidence shows that compassion is not just "a hippy dippy religious term," irrelevant to our competitive, self-seeking modern society. On the contrary he says, research shows that compassion and social connectedness lead to faster recovery from illness, greater happiness and even longer lifespans.

Along with others working in this area, Doty believes that the "selfish gene" view of human behavior gets things back to front:

While survival of the fittest may lead to short-term gain, research clearly shows it is survival of the kindest that leads to the long-term survival of a species.

2. How aspirational communication changes history. Doug Hattaway's presentation, "Achieve Great Things: The Art and Science of Aspirational Communications," was the best I've ever seen on effective messaging.

Hattaway is the founder of Hattaway Communications, whose clients include the World Bank, the Ford Foundation and the Gates Foundation. He's making his presentation available as a free download, and if you have any interest in the topic, I recommend you take advantage.

He says aspiration is the most powerful motivator of action, as opposed to information, jargon or pity. As one example, he compares the slogans of the Ford Foundation before and after a re-branding:

  • Before: A resource for innovative people and institutions worldwide.
  • After: Working with Visionaries on the Frontlines of Social Change.

The new version uses aspirational language to enlist supporters to join a battle for a better world. The difference is not just wordsmithing or image-polishing. Hattaway points to wide swings in public opinion and engagement depending on how a message is delivered.

Substance is, of course, a requirement. But to communicate substance with impact, Hattaway says to take a lesson from Martin Luther King's historic, "I Have A Dream," speech: text analysis shows it was about 80 percent aspiration and five percent policy.

3. How "socially-amplified" individuals create solutions that institutions cannot. Marina Gorbis of the Institute for the Future is the author of The Nature of the Future: Dispatches from the Socialstructed World. In it, she argues:

We are seeing a new kind of network or relationship-driven economics emerging, with individuals joining forces sometimes to fill the gaps left by existing institutions -- corporations, governments, educational establishments -- and sometimes creating new products, services and knowledge that no institution is able to provide. Empowered by computing and communication technologies that have been steadily building village-like networks on a global scale, we are infusing more and more of our economic transactions with social connectedness.

Gorbis cites Biocurious ("Experiment with Friends"), an open, DIY biology lab that birthed a $600 DNA analysis machine, which can substitute for ones costing from $4,000 to $10,000.

4. How causes on social media transcend "slacktivism." Julie Dixon thinks some charities are missing the point of social media by discounting seemingly ephemeral gestures such as Likes and Follows.

Dixon, who helps run the Center for Social Impact Communication at Georgetown University, showed some striking examples of this attitude, including a UNICEF Sweden ad campaign that included the headline, "Like us on Facebook, and we will vaccinate zero children against polio."

Dixon says this shows a misunderstanding of how social media works. Granted, some people just hit the Like button and go back to not caring, but research shows that for many others, social media engagement is a predictor of deeper involvement in other ways.

Meanwhile, there's the value of the increased exposure and influence represented by those Likes, each of which can put the organization's message in hundreds or thousands of new streams.

5. How simply getting meetings right can make all the difference. In both the for profit and nonprofit worlds, meetings are notorious for being unproductive, or even counter-productive. Some of the most frustrating are those intended to achieve collaboration among nonprofit organizations.

According to expert facilitator Sam Kaner, such meetings too often get lost in what he calls "the groan zone:" conflict among participants about who will do what and how.

According to Kaner, too many people try to escape the groan zone, instead of recognizing it as a necessary feature of doing collaboration's hard work.

In his best-selling book, Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making, Kaner presents a practical process for designing the right meeting for the right objective. He says people seeking true collaboration should plan for divergent thinking, followed by a healthy groan zone, followed by convergent thinking -- and he teaches how to guide that process, step by step by step.

Kaner gives courage to all who, like I, have ever begged a meeting-mate to, "just shoot me, right now."

These were just some of many highlights at an extraordinary gathering. In the interests of space, I'll end by just recommending strongly that you look into these other presenters as well:

  • Alana Conner and Hazel Rose Markus, co-authors of Clash! 8 Cultural Conflicts That Make Us Who We Are, who advised on how to work productively with the differences between independent and inter-dependent cultural styles.
  • John Kenyon, nonprofit technology educator and strategist, who advocated for appropriate and effective uses of technology, as opposed to distraction by shiny objects.
  • Willa Seldon, a partner at strategic consulting firm the Bridgespan Group. She moderated a discussion with two leaders from California State East [San Francisco] Bay on effective collaboration, based on the Gateways East Bay STEM Network, which aims to boost outcomes in science, technology, engineering and mathematics education.

Note: Last time, I promised part two of a look at how some non-profits seem designed to fail. That's still to come -- in the meantime I attended the Nonprofit Management Institute, and wanted to share what I found there.