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Nonprofit leaders advised to stand up, speak out

Ruth McCambridge, editor-in-chief of the Boston-based Nonprofit Quarterly, told a roomful of Minnesota nonprofit leaders this week that one big challenge they face is speaking their truth to the funders.

In a sector where "you have to go and beg for money sometimes, we have tended to make ourselves look as non-obnoxious as possible," she said. "That can work against our sense of power in situations where negotiations are at stake."

McCambridge spoke during the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits' 2008 Nonprofit Leadership Summit on Monday and Tuesday in Minneapolis. Talks and workshops covered the waterfront: the generational culture clash, the need for more nonprofit partnerships, creating future leaders and more.

The conference was part-challenge, part-inspiration and part-nonprofit closet of anxieties, all of which surfaced during the panel discussion McCambridge moderated on the future of leadership.


Panelist Sean Kershaw, Citizens League executive director in Minnesota, said the next generation of leaders would need to become more innovative because government is fundamentally changing — and diminishing.

"We often act as if the only challenge right now is that government hasn't turned up the spigots enough," he said. "This year is going to be nothing compared to five years from now, when we face much-larger budget consequences and no amount of tax increases will get us there."

Developing a leadership pipeline
Panelist Ron McKinley, project director of Kellogg Action Lab, said despite 35 years of rhetoric, the nonprofit sector had "failed miserably" to add significant numbers of leaders from communities of color. To make his point, he asked people of color to stand, showing their relatively small numbers at the conference of approximately 400.

"We have reneged on our responsibility to serve our next generation by giving you the opportunity to develop and learn from communities of color," he said.

Panelist Jeannie Bell, executive director of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, argued for more partnerships as a "disruptive force."
 
When nonprofits go together to funders to ask for money, it is very hard for them to say no, she said. Partnership pushes against passivity: "It allows you to be more disruptive together than you are individually."

The two-day conference ended with a "call to action," (more individual reflection on lessons learned than group declaration.)

One young woman said she planned to recognize other people in her organization when they had a "leadership moment," because sometimes people don't see that they have the ability to lead. 

Bennie Loro, Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota executive director, left with ideas for succession planning, such as transferring institutional knowledge to younger staff.

"There are ongoing discussions with the board of directors as to when I might consider retirement," said Loro, 57. "It is an ongoing conversation."

MCN Executive Director Jon Pratt said a big challenge going forward is developing a leadership pipeline, and no one organization could do it alone.

The conference devoted a significant amount of time airing generational differences in leadership and work expectations. Comments from Trisha Hasbargen, executive director of the Minnesota Jaycees, were typical of younger attendees.

"Yeah, we know we have issues with how we communicate and how we use technology," she said. "It's fascinating to talk about dysfunction. I'd rather talk about how we can work together."

As an aside to young nonprofit workers looking to advance, Hasbargen also is a leader with Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN) Twin Cities. It educates, supports and connects young nonprofit leaders. YNPN hosted a well-attended happy hour at Stub & Herbs during the conference and holds other networking events.

In a post-conference interview, McCambridge elaborated on her comments on nonprofits' need to have more candid conversations with funders.

"I think that you can be outspoken and still receive money," she said. "I think you garner more respect if you are completely honest and state your case."

The problem is, people get cautious. They overcorrect and worry about losing a grant. They become less than they really are. Funders end up not trusting their integrity, she said.

Her advice?

"You can't be scared of the funder — and you have to have a doomsday plan if you really end up marginalizing yourself."

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