Upswell LA 2018

Uplifting. That’s my one word description of Upswell 2018, the successor to the annual Independent Sector conference that took place in Los Angeles from November 14 to 16. Here is how the event was described:

Imagine what would happen if we harnessed the energy, insights, and experience of the people who are driven to do good. If we could do instead of talk and collaborate instead of compete, imagine the kind of change we could make. That’s what Upswell is about.


Upswell is what happens when good ideas are powered by goodwill. It’s a chance to make meaning, make community and make a difference. It’s an immersive experience that creates new opportunities for deep and meaningful engagement with changemakers of every kind.


Our world needs Upswell. And Upswell needs you.

Upswell was different from a typical conference, though there were still plenty of traditional workshops with some main stage presentations mixed in. The big distinguishing factor was the Public Square, which offered a variety of immersive experiences to choose from throughout the day, including dance, yoga, and ukulele; virtual reality visits focused on important issues; quick talks on the Spotlight Stage; and science and tech demos. In addition, there were a number of educational trips throughout the community and organized neighborhood dinners. The emphasis was on providing more opportunities for attendees to meet and build connections. And sure enough there were quaint gathering places and artwork that transformed the hotel conference area.

Even with the interesting array of choices, my favorite parts of Upswell 2018 were the main stage presentations and a few of the panel discussions and workshops.

Upswell Main Stage

After welcoming statements from Independent Sector CEO Dan Cardinali, Andrew Powers, City Manager of Thousand Oaks, spoke to attendees about the city’s relief efforts after the tragic shooting and ongoing fires. Powers was followed by L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is eyeing a run for president. Garcetti was eloquent and compelling in discussing Los Angeles, the third biggest (local) economy in the world, and its efforts to address the housing crisis and homelessness. Interestingly, he asked why there weren’t major public housing projects like in Singapore or Hong Kong. Garcetti also shared his anxiety and excitement (“anxitement”) about the current political climate, noting the activism of the young and the 800,000 voters registered on National Voter Registration Day.

Artist Erik Wahl engaged the audience with his speed-art presentation and witty demonstration on getting past fears to get unexpected rewards. He also emphasized that we need more dream do-ers.

Robert Eggar, founder of the recently closed L.A. Kitchen, delivered a powerful talk about “the fierce grip of normal, the tyranny of routine.” He also announced that he’s “taking a knee” on leading nonprofits and going to focus on helping younger leaders while F**kingS**tUp. Among his goals is claiming more political clout for nonprofits. See Philanthropy Puts a ‘Chokehold’ on Innovation, Says Nonprofit Veteran (Chronicle of Philanthropy).

Ann Mei Chang, author of Lean Impact:  How to Innovate for Radically Greater Social Good, preached the following: Think big. Start small. Seek impact. Focus on delivering value, impact, and growth. Don’t fall in love with your solution at the expense of focusing on the problem. The speed of iteration is important. See A Conversation With Ann Mei Chang, Author, ‘Lean Impact: How to Innovate for Radically Greater Social Good’ (PND Blog).

David Brooks, a popular columnist for The New York Times, spoke on building ties to weave and redeem the broader social fabric that our hyper-individualism and sectarianism is ripping apart.

Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, delivered a powerful speech about her experiences and why she founded the movement –  to help and empower survivors on their own terms. It’s about restoring the humanity of individual people. It’s not just political or just a moment. Quoting Professor Imani Perry, Burke said, ““Awareness in and of itself is nothing without a moral imperative.” The movement is no longer about awareness, it’s about action – what happens after the hashtag. 

Kevin Washington, CEO of the YMCA of the USA, interviewed four young people from the Long Beach YMCA. They need opportunities.

Sarah Kastelic, Executive Director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association, talked with Dan Cardinali about taking back the word tribalism, which in indigenous cultures is about community, connection, and reciprocity, not sectarianism, nationalism, and racism. They also discussed the Native American’s seven generation approach, taking into consideration how an individual is impacted by and in turn impacts the seven generations closest to them. It is child-centric, community-engaged, and elder-informed.


Anne Wallested, CEO of BoardSource, presented a workshop on strategic alliances. Some of the conversation starters for boards to consider strategic alliances: (1) What is driving us to grow? (2) How well do we understand community needs? (3) What other organizations are asking the same questions? (4) What are the pros and cons of going it alone? 

Ben Kershaw, Public Policy and Government Relations Director for Independent Sector, moderated a highly informative session on policy advocacy. The panel consisted of Robert Lynch, CEO of Americans for the Arts, Jan Masaoka, CEO of CalNonprofits, and Heather Meade, Partner at Ernst & Young’s Washington Council practice. They recapped the recent midterm elections (more a blue swell rather than a blue wave) and showed what might be on the 2019 Congressional Agenda. In addition, they emphasized that tax incentives have a significant impact on charitable giving and the opportunities to influence the new members of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Lynch shared his organization’s 5-step plan for policy advocacy and getting clout: (1) Build an army (use email). (2) Equip them with facts (focus on what legislators want). (3) Communicate those facts relentlessly. (4) Direct asks. (5) Consider using affiliated organizations/vehicles, like a 501(c)(4) organization and Political Action Committee (Eggar pointed out to me that this last step would be unrealistic for the vast majority of charities). Meade suggested having an executive of a nonprofit attempt to go with a board member to a Congressional fundraiser at a highly reduced fee. She guessed nonprofits would bat better than 50 percent if they asked, and some on the Twittersphere agreed. Masaoka noted that California has been adopting an us versus them mentality and was looking at legislation regarding crowdfunding and donor-advised funds.

Paul Brest, former Dean and Professor Emeritus at Stanford Law School, moderated my favorite session, a spirited discussion with David Callahan. founder and editor of Inside Philanthropy, Masaoka, and Rob Reich, professor at Stanford and author of the newly published Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better, on the problems with large-scale philanthropy. Reich kicked off the discussion with a historical perspective of the distrust and concern associated with philanthropy and its impact on democracy. Masaoka, called for nonprofits to embrace democracy at all levels. The rich are getting richer, and the poor are getting poorer by deliberate social and political design. She says the solution is simple: taxes. Callahan and Brest agreed with the idea of tax reform to address wealth inequality but partly pushed back on the criticism of philanthropy. They noted that foundations fund many, many pro-democratic efforts, and they often work as a countervailing force to corporate advocacy that would otherwise proceed unchecked.

Meera Chary and Preeta Nayak, Principal and Partner, respectively, at Bridgespan Group, led a workshop on moving to action on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and Talent. Out of table discussions, we heard both general ideas and personal experiences. One main point that resonated: If equity is a goal, we must acknowledge why those inequities exist and determine how to address the power structures that created and perpetuated them. In discussing the competencies we need in future leaders, we came up with the following list: emotional intelligence and resilience, change management, distributive leadership, conflict resolution, adaptability, and communications.

John W. Gardner Leadership Award

The John W. Gardner Leadership Award was established in 1985 to honor outstanding Americans who exemplify the leadership and the ideals of John W. Gardner (1912-2002), American statesman and founding chair of Independent Sector. Independent Sector presents the award each year to an individual whose leadership in or with the nonprofit community has been transformative and who has mobilized and unified people, institutions, or causes that improve the quality of life on our planet.

The 2018 John W. Gardner Leadership Award was presented to Angela Glover Blackwell, founder of PolicyLink, by her son Fred Blackwell, CEO of The San Francisco Foundation and Vice Board Chair of Independent Sector. 

Committed to fighting for a fair, inclusive nation that delivers on the promise of opportunity for all, Angela created PolicyLink in 1999 to drive policy solutions that address equity. Over her 20 years as founding leader of this national research and action institute, Angela’s vision and methods to address systemic injustice have made a positive impact on thousands of lives and transformed how organizations approach the pursuit of equitable outcomes for our nation’s most vulnerable communities and people.

Final Thoughts

Independent Sector CEO Dan Cardinali described Upswell as a wave of civil society with designed social collisions, locally grounded and nationally relevant. The event lived up to the billing. But Dan vowed that Upswell organizers will continually learn and build on Upswell events, including the smaller Upswell Labs like the one I attended in San Francisco earlier this year. I generally attend conferences as the only representative of our small firm, and even though I saw a number of acquaintances and familiar faces, it remains awkward for me to participate in some of the outside activities. So, I’ll hope for more opportunities for introverts, like me, to connect with others at the start of the event. I’ll see you all in Chicago for Upswell 2019.

More About Upswell

Day 1 / Be Big. Be Bold. Be Loving.
Day 2 / A Better Way to Live.
Day 3 / The True Meaning of Tribe.