Upswell Summit 2023 – Day One

I’m in Dallas for the Upswell Summit 2023. After 3 straight years of virtual summits, it was great to see folks in person. Here are some highlights from Day One –

Opening Main Stage – Why Democracy Depends on a Healthy Nonprofit Sector

  • Nonprofits remain among the most trusted institutions in America, although sector trust declined by a statistically significant 4 points in 2023 — the largest year-over-year change in trust of any institution tested. See Fourth Annual Report on Trust in Civil Society Reveals Decline in Nonprofit Trust. Partly due to polarization of society and the sector.
  • According to a recent U.S. Census Bureau and AmeriCorps survey, formal volunteer participation was 23.2%, dropping 7 percentage points between 2019 and 2021 — the largest decrease the survey has recorded since a version of it started in 2002. See Nonprofits scramble for help amid dearth of volunteers. Need to reduce economic and other barriers to volunteer service. Volunteering substantially builds an individual’s trust in the sector.
  • Native Communities Perspective: When focusing on survival, we’re missing conversations about: (1) what does thriving look like and (2) how do we live our values. Thriving is where we collectively grow. Look for upcoming survey from Native Ways Federation. Also look for upcoming book from First Nations Development Institute and The Nonprofit Quarterly, Invisible No More: Voices from Native America.
  • Only 31% of nonprofits report engaging in advocacy or lobbying over the last five years, which is less than half of the percentage of nonprofits that reported ever lobbying in 2000 (74%). See Nonprofit Advocacy & Civic Engagement Research.
  • Service builds a pathway between charity and justice. See Service can take us on a path from charity to justice.

Transparency, Trust, and Ethical Practice in the Nonprofit Sector

  • Independent Sector is planning to update Principles for Good Governance in 2024 as much as happened since the last edition in 2015 – polarization, DEI movements, drop in trust
  • Workshop included table discussions of threats, issues, pressures, trends to consider and incorporate
  • I noted adding values, equity, and ecosystem to focus on mission – best captured in Purpose-Driven Board Leadership
  • Several others noted the need for building trust within organizations, including through fair compensation practices

Better Language: A New Voice for Philanthropy

  • The Council on Foundations and the Center for Public Interest Communications recently completed a scan of the dominant narratives around foundations.
  • Foundations need better stories and better language if they really want to lift up the positive impact of their work, push back against false narratives, and build trust.
  • Charitable nonprofit stories are getting lost – Only 5.4% of survey respondents said they or anyone in their immediate family received services from a charitable organization in the last year
  • Query for foundation leaders: Are we harming our work and our partners’ work with our storytelling?
  • Landscape scan on what people are saying and reading about philanthropy:
    • Distrust of wealth
    • Unease of private money solving public problems
    • Individual heroes
  • Metaphors we use overinflate the power and influence we have in a larger network of change (e.g., we’re lifting up people)
  • People working for Congress want more transparent and accessible information about how foundations/philanthropy serves their constituents
  • Words matter – marriage equality example – change from equality and justice to love and freedom. See “Love is Love” and Other Stories: The Role of Narrative in Winning the Freedom To Marry.
  • Metaphors – you need to meet people where they are
  • See Better Stories, Better Language: A New Voice for Philanthropy.
  • The Science of What Makes People Care

Main Stage – AI and Nonprofits: Transformative, Terrifying, or Both?

  • AI can be a gamechanger for communities or destroy our planet. See Tools and Weapons: The Promises and the Peril of the Digital Age
  • AI has been around for decades, but the amount of content has grown exponentially from which AI can be informed
  • Two types of AI:
    • Predictive AI (learns from data)
    • Generative AI (learns from data and other content to develop new content)
  • Problem: AI makes things up – so we need experts to monitor. See AI tools make things up a lot, and that’s a huge problem.
  • AI is built on whomever is participating – digital divide creates inequities that can be further exacerbated by AI
  • Nonprofit employees are experts and the best people to inform AI development for nonprofits and their beneficiaries, but they regularly disqualify themselves saying that they are not technologists
  • AI Superpowers include AI translating human language to computer language (which would allow people to program using plain spoken language)
  • AI Superproblems too (including the inequities issue described above) which can create further losses in trust
  • AI is just one form of technology and way that data and content are used – nonprofits probably have many policies and laws that already cover what the AI is impacting (e.g., privacy)
  • Nonprofit leaders should accept obligation to learn more about AI (you don’t have to get AI, it’s coming to you); boards should be involved in discussing how AI should be used by their organizations
  • AI should be thought of as part of the public infrastructure (like public libraries)
  • We should also understand the environmental impact and sustainability of AI use

What Everyone Can Learn From Leaders of Color

  • See SSIR article – What Everyone Can Learn From Leaders of Color
  • “For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.” – James Baldwin
  • “If I have to leave out the part of myself that is positively identified with being Black, then no matter how good I am, I am not the best I can be.” – David Thomas, President of Morehouse College
  • Identity – shapes – Values & beliefs systems, lived experience, and communities – which informs – Assets (motivation, relationship & networks, and skillsets & behaviors) – which affects – leadership approach & outcomes
  • Black leaders can think of being part of a solution that may take generations (vs. dominant management thinking of solutions within an individual leader’s tenure)
  • Black leaders love their communities and all that’s done with love is done well
  • BIPOC leaders provide examples and role models for younger BIPOC persons interested in becoming future leaders
  • BIPOC leaders can educate funders on community needs they may understand more due to lived experience and connections and trust they have in the community (proximity is an asset, not a liability)
  • BIPOC leaders may exhibit greater creativity and resilience because of lived experience in a world that has designed systems without them in mind; soft and social skills are critically important
  • Problem: Glass Cliff – BIPOC leaders are getting keys to burning houses – see, e.g., Avoiding the Glass Cliff: Advice to Boards on Preparing for and Supporting New Leaders of Color

Main Stage – Bridging the Gap: Compassionate Leadership and Inclusive Workplaces