2017 Conference: Our Common Future

I’m attending the 2017 Independent Sector-Council of Michigan Foundations-Michigan Nonprofit Association Conference: Our Common Future in Detroit from October 25 through 27.

Our Common Future will be this year’s most crucial gathering of doers and dreamers bent on making the world a better place. Nonprofits, foundations, corporations, social enterprises — no matter where you choose to do good, we’ll empower you to do it better.


The future can’t be stopped, but it can be steered. Get ready to take the wheel.

Live Blogging

Day One Main Stage

The Conference kicked off with a prayer, blessing, and song from Sunflower Singers, members of American Indian Health Family Services. La June Montgomery Tabron (Kellogg Foundation) noted the recent passing and legacy of the late Dr. Russell G. Mawby, a philanthropist and chairman emeritus of the Kellogg Foundation.

Jill Vialet, founder and CEO of Playworks, engaged the audience of 1,400 in some simple play – standing up when certain statement applied to us. I stood up for being a board member, performing in a musical, and having Justin Timberlake music on my phone. Playworks helps kids to stay active and build valuable social and emotional skills through play. Play teaches us to be human.

Mo Rocca (CBS Sunday Morning) moderated a panel featuring Amy Peterson (Rebel Nell), Gary Wozniak (RecoveryPark), and Devita Davison (FoodLab). All panelists ran nonprofits that were affiliated with for-profit social enterprises. When Mo asked whether the panelists identified as social entrepreneurs or social innovators, Devita said she was an organizer (she was also an incredibly compelling advocate of food justice). 

Mo noted Detroit’s footprint covers an area (139 square miles) bigger than Boston, San Francisco, and Manhattan put together. This makes it challenging for nonprofits to serve the area but you can’t forget the people in the neighborhoods who are innovating and making their way out of nowhere. They need capital and other resources to allow them to thrive. Gary called out philanthropy to invest now. Devita wanted the Detroit of her childhood for her niece, the Detroit that created the black middle class. Amy wanted opportunities for everybody and noted that the organizations are there ready to make bigger changes but need more capital. Devita noted that philanthropy was only one source of capital but that philanthropy can’t be expected to solve Detroit’s problems; we need government and businesses too.

Mo asked whether the panelists would direct a young person to a career in a nonprofit or mission-focused for-profit. Gary was quick to answer the for-profit. Devita said she would direct the person to become President of the United States.

Hannah White and Sterling Elliott, musicians from Sphinx, the Detroit-based national organization dedicated to transforming lives through the power of diversity in the arts, gave an incredible performance, well-deserving of the rousing standing ovation they received.

La June and Patricia Mooradian (The Henry Ford) provided some closing thoughts of the opening plenary. Patricia noted the theme of learning from the past to create a better future, including through partnerships, commitment, empowerment, connectivity, and collaboration.

It Takes a Community (Foundation)

Robert Lynch (Americans for the Art) moderated a panel featuring Fred Blackwell (San Francisco Foundation), Mariam Noland (Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan), and Michael Roberts (First Nations Development Institute).

Fred talked about SFF’s shift to a focus on racial and economic equity and its leadership across sectors. SFF convenes people who seek to address a common problem but may not agree upon particular solutions. Mariam also discussed CFSM’s engagement of donors. Michael noted how little philanthropic funds make it to American Indian country organizations then described FNDI’s national grantmaking also included a convening of all grantees to facilitate collaboration and mutual learning.

Fred identified engaging corporations and for-profit businesses as the most challenging part of SFF’s work. He noted the differences in language, the lack of place-affiliation of corporations that identified themselves as global entities, and the desire for corporations to fund their unique initiatives rather participate in a collaborative initiative. He finds optimism where SFF identifies a particular business’ desired niche (e.g., affordable housing because the corporation’s employees are finding it difficult to live near its business offices). Mariam noted that individuals within the corporations want to be engaged on an individual, rather than a corporate, level but may lead their corporations to participate. She also noted that corporations are willing to convene on talent issues. Fred added that engaging corporations is not only about corporate philanthropy; it’s also about engaging their equity practices (a much more difficult topic of engagement).

The panelists discussed their boards. Michael’s organization’s board had to consider diversity in tribes as well as geography, gender, and skill set. Mariam’s organization’s board appeared to be focused on their giving responsibilities. Fred noted that his organization’s board composition had to factor in equity and inclusion beyond just diversity.

In response to a question, Mariam discussed CFSM’s grantmaking to for-profits, which makes sense when thinking about Michigan and its economic development needs. Fred mentioned SFF’s Rapid Response Fund for Movement Building. Michael discussed investing in Section 7871 organizations, Indian tribal governments.

Fred said SFF used to have its point of view as opaque as possible so as not to offend anyone. That no longer works, and SFF has moved to being crystal clear about what it stands for and looking for donors with common values and goals. This means SFF can outcompete donor-advised fund sponsoring organizations associated with the big financial services companies (e.g., Fidelity, Schwab) for the donor that wants to fund local programs focused on making the area more equitable.

Taking the Sector’s Temperature

Alan Abramson (George Mason University) moderated the panel of academics researching aspects of development of a nonprofit health index.  Jeff Bradach (Bridgespan Group) provided additional context and framed three questions for the audience to discuss:

  • What do you think are the most important audiences for a sector health index?
  • What are the most important health indicators that these audiences need to know?
  • What would be the most important piece of data about the sector’s health that would inform your own organization’s work and help you make better decisions?

Sarah Pettijohn and Elizabeth Boris discussed state nonprofit culture and identified four major categories of measurement: state regulations, fiscal conditions, social & political culture, size of the nonprofit sector. They classified state nonprofit culture as complementary, supplementary, or independent.

Patrick Bixler discussed social capital in the nonprofit sector. The inputs: trust, norms, values, social networks, social structure, social relations, and actual or potential resources. The outputs: facilitate action, pursue shared objectives, and promote social cooperation.

Jodi Benenson discussed inequality that may influence nonprofit health and indicators on the individual, community, organizational, and policy levels.  She asked how we would measure these things when equity issues may hit these different levels in different ways.

Elizabeth Castillo discussed how we privilege a single type of resource – financial – while neglecting to consider many other types of resources. She focused on multiple forms of capital – resources that could generate other resources. Intangible forms of capital (e.g., intellectual, social, reputational) are important drivers of value creation and sustainability.

Roland Kushner discussed his development of the National Arts Index and use of a balanced scorecard. He also noted the idea of measuring how well the nonprofit sector competes. See Creating a Policy Index for the Arts (SSIR).

Day Two Main Stage

Dan Cardinali (Independent Sector) asked how do we measure 526,000 minutes. Not in cups of coffee or sunsets, but in how we come together and collectively transform the world. He then announced next year’s conference Upswella new social change and learning experience that will take place in Los Angeles on November 14-16, 2018. Upswell will replace Independent Sector’s traditional annual conference, “relying on local, state and national individuals to embed in a community and to spread what has been learned to a national audience.” (The NonProfit Times)

Stephen Henderson (Detroit Free Press) moderated a conversation with Rosanne Haggerty (CEO of Community Solutions and the 2017 recipient of Independent Sector’s John W. Gardner Leadership Award) and Sarah Eagle Heart (CEO of Native Americans in Philanthropy and the 2017 recipient of the American Express NGen Leadership Award). Rosanne compellingly spoke of homelessness as an issue too broad to diagnose as one problem and one that demands individualized solutions. The solutions are to be found working with the communities of homeless people. Sarah delivered powerful messages emphasizing that there is no justice without indigenous justice. Yet she also recognized the intersectionality of advancing justice. Sarah described her experience rushing the blue carpet at the MTV VMAs in collaboration with Taboo from the Black Eyed Peas (see photo here) and added this nugget of wisdom from her grandmother:

No matter who is saying what to you, speak the truth with love and respect.

Rip Rapson (The Kresge Foundation) emphasized the need to bear witness, create spaces for acts of courage, and forge alliances around the nonnegotiable. Referring to the nation’s leadership over the past several months, Rip challenged the audience to consider what they would do when what they stand for comes under assault. “The ethical imperative of action is searing.”

Kresge Artist Fellows Chace Morris and Chi Amen-Ra added rap and beats emphasizing One Nation, One Fam, One People, One Land. Chi closed by remaining us of the new to be engaged and active – because:

People find it easier to be a result of the past than the cause of the future.

Supporting Systems That Feed a Diverse Talent Pipeline

Michael McAfee (PolicyLink), Jan Masaoka (CalNonprofits), and Anna Chu (National Women’s Law Center) discussed diversity, equity, and inclusion and public policies, including student loan forgiveness and family leave. Jan noted that more than 160,000 nonprofit staff in California had student debt (see Nonprofit Student Debt Project), which damages recruitment, retention and diversity in the nonprofit workforce. Anna discussed how policies regarding childcare, paid family leave, and equal pay similarly and adversely impact diversity, equity, and inclusion. The panel all agreed that policy advocacy not only makes sense for nonprofits but it’s also correlated to more organizational success. On the matter of compensation, Jan reminded the audience that nonprofits must focus not only on professionals but also on low-wage workers, the most vulnerable group of employees.

Mike discussed how innovation from high-profile institutions often repackaged and rebranded work already being done by community nonprofits but without the important operational perspective of the community. In the case of “collective impact,” what was missing was equity (see The Equity Imperative in Collective Impact – Stanford Social Innovation Review).

Two must-read resources were discussed at the session:

The discussion was fascinating even for those of us familiar with the resources. Jan left us with a final image, cautioning that nonprofits (including foundations) can’t simply strive to be perfect islands of equity in a toxic sea. Policy is good business and looks at all affected communities.

Day Three Main Stage

Darren Walker (Ford Foundation) interviewed Detroit-native Dan Gilbert (Quicken Loans, Rock Ventures, Cleveland Cavaliers), focusing more on Gilbert’s self-identified “more-than-for-profit” businesses than on his philanthropy (Dan and his wife signed the Giving Pledge). Gilbert emphasized job-creation, reminding me somewhat of the tension between capitalism and charity in George Bernard Shaw’s Major Barbara. During the interview, Darren shared the video Move Here, Move the World, which is being used to attract Amazon to Detroit, which could be a game changer for the city.

Broadcaster and author Krista Tippett followed the interview by emphasizing that the country (perhaps the world) needs love and civility to be as muscular and robust as hate. Her powerful message, spoken with a gentle voice, resonated with some, but it seems her observation that there is an epidemic of despair and anger prevented the majority from immediately embracing her main message. She noted that we’re in a very messy adolescence of what it means to be a pluralistic democracy.

Krista then entered into a great discussion with Darren and Robert Ross (California Endowment). Krista called for the world to recover its capacity for joy, which she identified as a birthright, not a privilege. Darren challenged the call for the oppressed to be more joyful; Darren himself was enraged when witnessing all the inequities. Rob noted that while we’re in a battle for our civic soul, social justice work can be both hard and joyful.

Robert also told the story of indirectly hearing the Pope’s observation that communism produces equality at the expense of freedom while capitalism produces freedom at the expense of equality. The Pope said philanthropy’s job was to fix it. Darren and Robert also discussed how philanthropy was viewed (not unfairly) as capitalism’s illegitimate child. This led to perhaps the best exchange between Robert and Darren:

We need to do what we can.


Yes, but that’s more than we do.

Thornetta Davis, Detroit’s Queen of the Blues, performed two rousing numbers that perfectly ended the conference. I’m really looking forward to Upswell.

Favorite Tweets

  • Jeffrey Bradach: Loved opening . Challenged thinking. Powerful energy & solutions reside locally. Detroit exemplifies. Provocative elements..
  • Independent Sector: “What’s at stake now is the soul of the nation…& the integrity of whatever we call faith.”  
  • Tracy Boak: “Diversity and inclusion are not extracurricular.” , President and Artistic Director of  
  • Linda Baker: A single story is not wrong, but dangerously not enough. We must invite voices and stories from across our communities.
  • Rachel Mosher Williams: Love ’s emphasis “Food is intersectional.” There is no if poverty and hunger exist. WeDreamForward
  • Henry Timms: Congratulations for winning the Amex Leadership award – so inspiring
  • Nicole Wallace: Be sure to read the wonderful profile of Sarah Eagle Heart that wrote: Chronicle of Philanthropy
  • David Biemesderfer: .: it will take courageous and vulnerable leaders in philanthropy to say “I don’t know the answer, let’s figure it out together” if we want to solve intractable problems
  • Spark Action: “I’m fired up about making sure young people are not only in the room & listened to, but are LEADING.” Robert Ross
  • Andy Ho: Would greater investments [in] social sector talent drive greater impact? What would it look like?