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Axelson Symposium Examines Evolution of Nonprofit Arena

Axelson Symposium Examines Evolution of Nonprofit Arena

CHICAGO, IL (May 17, 2010) – Interest and opportunities for volunteerism are increasing, but nonprofit organizations will need to address differing motivations and loyalties of individuals if they are to continue successfully serving constituents, a consultant told attendees at the Axelson Symposium’s closing panel discussion on Thursday.

Heather Gowdy, senior associate of La Piana Consulting, said the changing motivations were among five societal shifts impacting the future operations of nonprofits. The organizations also will have to adapt to demographic shifts, technological advances, the increasing importance of networking, and the blurring of private and nonprofit sectors.

The 11th annual Symposium was held on the campus of North Park University last Wednesday and Thursday. The Axelson Center for Nonprofit Management sponsors the event, which drew 500 people.

Gowdy drew on findings that resulted from a study her organization did for the James Irvine Foundation and led to the publication of "Convergence: How Five Trends Will Reshape the Social Sector".

Volunteers are increasingly more interested in serving a cause than they are committed to working with a particular organization, Gowdy said. Nonprofits will need to be more focused on meeting rising expectations and proving their value, as well as more creative in leveraging the interest of potential volunteers.

She added, “People are viewing doing good as something to be integrated into their lives, not something to be added on for a few hours.”

Changing demographics also will force nonprofits to adapt in the way they serve communities and raise support. Volunteers of different cultures, for example, have different expectations of how they work with an organization, Gowdy said. Networking has become essential, she said. “Leaders need to cultivate a network mindset,” she said.

Panelist Sandra Guthman, Chair of the Board of Directors and CEO of Polk Bros. Foundation, agreed, but added that collaboration must be built on long-term, trusting relationships. She commented that nonprofits must guard against collaborating with other organizations just because a funder wants them to and emphasized that collaborative relationships must have staying power.

Those collaborations include the partnerships between funders and grantees. James Parsons, President of the Brinson Foundation, said funders had made changes due to mistakes, and that the changes were beneficial for everyone.

“Part of the reason we’ve developed some of our funding programs is to make sure that we’re addressing the right things,” he said. “This is a game of chasing money, and nonprofits will come after us—they’ll set up programs and look good. We’ll end up funding them, and suddenly we’re both going down the wrong alleys.”

Parsons added, “We’re doing everything we can to make our grantees competitive.”

The rise of mobile media also continues to impact marketing in ways that alter an organization’s strategy. “User-generated content rules,” Gowdy said, explaining that “marketing departments still are important, but so is the junior staffer who is Tweeting about the organization.”

Asked whether social media will lead to more transient donors as opposed to the traditional loyal funder, Gowdy replied that it would to some extent, noting that nonprofits don’t know who the donors are if they have texted their contributions. But social media also provides the opportunity to develop more passionate donors.

“I see a larger base for any organization,” Gowdy said. “Hopefully, you’ll have a bigger middle.”

The lines between nonprofit and for-profit businesses are blurring as corporations are increasingly focused on addressing social needs, Gowdy added. She noted that there is a growing number of “low-profit corporations,” which are driven by both mission and profit.

Gowdy acknowledged that facing the challenges can be overwhelming, but she cautioned the organizations to take baby steps. Nonprofits should decide upon one to three things they can accomplish and pursue them. She added that no individual can institute all the changes and advised leaders to find “champions” within their structure who can focus on a particular area.

Panelists said organizations also need to be more intentional about leadership development—and encouraging leaders to improve their own effectiveness.

“Are you really pushing down the work—not the paper pushing, but the intellectual work, as far down into the organization as you can?” Guthman asked. “I would bet that 50 percent of the people in your organization could do more and work at a higher level than they are. If you can push that work down, then you’ll have time to do the reflection.”

Awards were handed out during a luncheon on Thursday.

The Bridge Youth & Family Services earned the Alford-Axelson Award for Small Organizations. The organization has assisted young people and their families for more than 45 years. The Bridge serves six townships in Cook County and provides counseling; crisis intervention for runaway, homeless, and neglected youth; and numerous other services to aid youth development.

Erie Family Health Center won the Alford-Axelson Award for Large Organizations. It serves roughly 30,000 uninsured and underinsured Chicagoans each year at its nine locations.

The Family Defense Center was honored with the Axelson Excellent Emerging Organization Award. Founded in 2005, the legal advocacy organization defends parents in danger of losing their children to foster care. The Center seeks to help families remain together whenever possible—as long as a safe environment can be provided.