North Park University - Chicago North Park University - Chicago

Past Nonprofit Conferences

2017 Conference: “Focus on the Important”

Tuesday, June 6, 2017 — North Park University, Johnson Center

Why is reclaiming your purpose significant now? Constant change and disruptions have required all of us to course correct, especially in Illinois. It’s easy to forget why what we do matters. Your glass may seem half empty, but as nonprofit leaders, we know that the glass is always half full. Refocusing on our purpose as individuals, organizations and advocates does matter; it matters to our colleagues, clients and supporters. Join us as we examine how tapping into your purpose strengthens the foundation for sustainability in the midst of unprecedented distractions. It’s time to refocus on what matters and why.

Sustaining Talent Engagement to Drive Mission

What matters to employees – to keep them connected and engaged? Among other things, employees care about having the opportunity to learn and grow, to build relationships with their colleagues, to maintain work/life balance, and to be appreciated.

When we cannot control the environment outside of our workplace, we need to pay even more attention to elements we can influence. As leaders, we are responsible for creating a positive, healthy work environment. As a team, we can make it happen.

Let’s brainstorm strategies that do work for greater engagement and overall productivity. Let’s also talk about what doesn’t work. What leads to the “revolving door syndrome?” This session will involve YOU in actual problem-solving discussions. Leave with strategies to take back to your teams that will help you foster a stronger, more effective organization.

Do Funders have a “Secret Sauce”?

Why does a funder support one organization over another? What are some of the key attributes that distinguish one organization from another beyond mission, target group and geographic focus?  What is the “secret sauce” that a funder seeks?  Are there any common factors that contribute to funder decisions not to recommend or renew a grant?

Why did “that” organization get the grant when yours did not?  Go beyond the basics and consider some of the important and less tangible factors you can control that may make a difference in surviving and thriving in this uncertain environment by gaining and retaining the support of your funders (and acquiring new ones).

Come listen to a panel of foundation leaders share their observations and insights. Consider ways you might make changes within your organization and prepare differently for your next interaction with a funder.

Jacob Harold, president & CEO of GuideStar

Lisa Brown Alexander, president & CEO of Nonprofit HR

Sandra Aponte, program officer at The Chicago Community Trust

Donald A. Cooke, senior vice president for philanthropy of the McCormick Foundation

James D. Parsons, president of The Brinson Foundation

Robin Steans, executive director of Advance Illinois

Ask a Funder gives attendees the opportunity to have conversations with program officers at Chicago area foundations on topics other than “What kinds of programs does your foundation support?” The Ask a Funder session is a prime opportunity for attendees to engage beyond their elevator pitch, and get on the funder’s radar first through relationship building. We thank the following funders for their participation:

The Brinson Foundation

The Chicago Community Trust

Chicago Foundation for Women

Community Memorial Foundation

JP Morgan Chase

Oak Park-River Forest Comunity Foundation

Springboard Foundation

Thank you to our sponsors!

2016 Conference: “Mining for Gold: Uncovering Hidden Treasures in Your Organization”

Monday, June 13, 2016 — Loews Chicago Hotel

Have you ever sat in a meeting and wished for the much-needed resources to fulfill mission more effectively? Those resources—your organization’s hidden treasures—are just waiting to be uncovered. Step into your own treasure hunt at the 17th Annual Axelson Center Symposium for Nonprofit Professionals and Volunteers.

Join us for a daylong exploration of the hidden gems within your organization. Uncover the talents of the people who surround you and connect to the latest trends in our sector to maximize those treasures. Interactive sessions will provide strategies to leverage opportunities and reinvigorate the way you look at your internal resources in order to bring your organization up to the gold standard.

Kimberly Bryant is the Founder and Executive Director of Black Girls CODE, a nonprofit organization dedicated to “changing the face of technology” by introducing girls of color (ages 7-17) to the field of technology and computer science with a concentration on entrepreneurial concepts. Kimberly served as an Engineering Manager for various Fortune 100 companies such as Genentech, Merck, and Pfizer. Kimberly has helped Black Girls CODE grow from a local organization serving only the Bay Area, to an international organization with seven chapters across the U.S. and in Johannesburg, South Africa. Black Girls CODE has currently reached over 3000 students and continues to grow and thrive.

Kimberly was highlighted by Business Insider on its list of “The 25 Most Influential African Americans in Technology” and was named to The Root 100 and the Ebony Power 100 lists. Kimberly was invited to the White House as a Champion of Change for her work in tech inclusion and for her focus on bridging the digital divide for girls of color.

She has been identified as a thought leader in the area of tech inclusion and has spoken on the topic at events such as Personal Democracy Forum, TedX Kansas City, Platform Summit, Big Ideas Festival, SXSW, and many others. Kimberly was recently awarded the Toyota Standing OVation award by Oprah in San Jose.

Awards Luncheon
Share a delicious lunch with colleagues and be the first to hear the announcement of the 2016 winners of the Alford-Axelson Award for Nonprofit Managerial Excellence and the Excellent Emerging Organization Award.

Collaborative Networking
This year we are offering more opportunities than ever to network with other nonprofit professionals.  We are hosting a first-time attendee breakfast, and a BootCamp Alumni breakfast. Engage with colleagues as you put your heads together to tackle tough questions and find solutions in unexpected places.

Make Your Pitch
Listen in as local nonprofits make their case to a panel of judges, then cast your vote in support of the best pitch. The winning organization receives a $1,000 cash prize.

Visit the Resource Center
Connect with nonprofit vendors offering services such as banking and financial management; design and printing; technology and database products; fundraising solutions, executive search and other consulting services; as well as local groups serving as capacity-building resources for your organization.

Mining for Innovation
Sessions include discussions on social enterprises, using apps and technology to engage your constituents, and why prioritizing diversity builds a stronger organization.

Mining for Money
This track is all about fundraising! We have sessions discussing current giving trends, the role of young philanthropists in the nonprofit sector, and the importance of being intentional in donor selection.

Mining for Talent
Search within your organization to bring out the best. Find new ways to maximize employee talents, grow the next generation of leaders and boost productivity by boosting employee satisfaction.

Mining Your Niche
In the crowded nonprofit landscape, finding your niche is imperative. Learn how to mine your niche through data analysis, entrepreneurial thinking, and developing a strong brand reputation and promise.

2015 Conference

Everyday Decisiveness: Decision-Making for Organizational Excellence

Nick Tasler

Sponsored by BMO Harris Bank

If we are to successfully innovate, disrupt the norm and be change agents for our communities, we must move ourselves and our organizations forward with every decision, every day. How do we attain that level of strategic decisiveness and apply it universally to our work? Lofty visions and big goals are important, but they only take you so far in advancing your mission. Nick Tasler, internationally acclaimed author of Why Quitters Win and The Impulse Factor and creator of the Think Strategically & Act Decisively team learning system, will share a simple 3-part framework for driving change on the daily decision-making level, and will help you pull yourself “out of the weeds” by learning why producing volume is not the same as pursuing excellence. Nick’s powerful presentation will equip you to overcome all types of challenges with future-focused thinking and decisive action, resulting in a renewed sense of professional purpose and greater personal and organizational effectiveness from the inside out.

About Nick Tasler: Nick is an internationally acclaimed author and creator of the Think Strategically & Act Decisively team learning system. His behavior change firm, Decision Pulse, has improved the strategic focus and team alignment at the world’s top companies ranging from Microsoft and General Electric to Wells Fargo, Symantec, and many more. His books have been translated into multiple foreign languages and are currently sold in more than 30 countries. Nick is also a management columnist for the Harvard Business Review, and the Strategic Thinking blogger for Psychology Today, as well as a frequent guest lecturer at the Wharton School of Business.

Awards Luncheon
We shared a delicious lunch with colleagues and were the first to hear the announcement of the 2015 winners of the Alford-Axelson Award for Nonprofit Managerial Excellence and the Excellent Emerging Organization Award. The luncheon was be emceed by Joshua Hale, President and CEO of the Big Shoulders Fund.

Collaborative Networking
Not your ordinary networking opportunity! Engage with colleagues as you put your heads together to tackle some of the tough questions and find solutions in unexpected places. Sponsored by IFF.

Make Your Pitch
Local nonprofits made their case to a panel of judges, and then votes were cast. The winning organization received a $1,000 cash prize sponsored by Urban Partnership Bank.

Track: Communicate Your Story

Cultivating Your Best Advocate

Speaker: Judith Gethner, Executive Director, Illinois Partners for Human Service

Word-of-mouth marketing is the most powerful kind of promotion: in addition to fundraising, it can raise awareness of your mission and work, open the door for new partnerships and bring in additional resources. With the right strategy, your organization can implement word-of-mouth with maximum return on investment. In this session we’ll use interactive exercises to help you identify who you want to reach with your story and what you’re trying to achieve with that message. Then we’ll discuss who the best stakeholders are to deploy for this kind of work and how to determine what the specific messages should be.


Moving from Program Thinking to Systems Thinking and High-Impact Leadership

Speaker: Polina Makievsky, Senior Vice President, Knowledge, Leadership & Innovation, Alliance for Strong Families & Communities

Nonprofit stakeholders want to see meaningful social impact; unfortunately, good intentions do not guarantee organizational success. Our operating environment and the problems we seek to address are complex and require systems leadership that envision organizations not as a stand-alone force for good, but rather a critical contributor to collective systems for change. This presentation will include an introduction to the Commitments of High Impact Nonprofit Organizations: a framework that identifies the leadership qualities, strategic competencies and organizational values that produce durable, meaningful impact. The session will zero in on four commitments that speak to the capacities that help organizations move beyond program thinking to systems thinking, including: “Leading with Vision,” “Partnering with Purpose,” “Co-Creating with Community” and “Engaging all Voices.” Participants will have the opportunity to examine:

  • why traditional approaches to social change have failed;
  • the characteristics of systems thinking;
  • case studies of organizations that are putting the Commitments Competencies to work.


Your Business Strategy Plan: Collaboration for Program and Bottom-Line Impact

Speakers: Brooke Wiseman, CEO and Erin Kerr, Director of Development, both of Blessings in a Backpack; Paula A. Sneed, Chairman and CEO, Phelps Prescott Group

Strategy plans are a valuable tool for strengthening your programs, services and your bottom line. Once the plan has been created, staff and board leadership must work together to implement the plan successfully.

In this session we’ll explore:

  • How the Senior Leadership team can articulate the strategic direction for the organization.
  • The valuable role members of the board of directors can play in facilitating parts of the plan.
  • How development and marketing can work together to deliver a seamless operational product.
  • Mastering the “how” and “why” of telling your organization’s story.
  • Effective strategies for engaging members and/or clients to communicate the organization’s story.

Track: Your Leadership: Your Impact

Shake it Up: Responding Proactively to Environmental Changes

Speaker: Maria Kim, President & CEO, The Cara Program

Change is inevitable, and successful nonprofits must have the foresight to anticipate external changes and respond swiftly with adjustments and internal changes that facilitate an effective position in the new environment. This session takes an up close and personal look at The Cara Program’s assessment of anticipated environmental changes and the decision-making strategies used in the restructuring process. Maria Kim, President & CEO of The Cara Program, will lead a conversation about organizational change that tackles the following topics:

  • When to crowdsource for a decision or simply execute;
  • Communication strategies for staff when disseminating information about changes;
  • (Re)building trust after a shock to your organization’s system;
  • Achieving the new normal and the new you.


Putting the Wheels in Motion: Success Strategies for Moving Your Organization Ahead

Speaker: Jaime Guzman, Executive Director, Chicago, Taproot Foundation

It’s a perpetual problem at nonprofits: too much work and not enough hands to do it. This session will help you maximize your team’s contributions and contribute to successful project completions. Using a self-assessment activity, together we’ll identify issues, or “pain points,” in your organization and learn how to scope projects. Then we’ll explore the discovery, direction and delivery of project planning and management. Session participants will walk away equipped to build strong role definitions and project timelines, and to build consensus on the future direction of their organization.


Harnessing Your Influence: Your Voice in Your Organization

Speakers: Ellen Romberg, Partner, Battalia Winston, Executive Search and Phyllis D. Hayes, HR Business Partner, Museum of Science and Industry

Regardless of your position in your organization, your voice can (and should) be heard! How can you speak up and speak out with both maximum respect and maximum impact for your organization? There are two key elements to consider—organizational structure and your personal communication style and skills—and we’ll cover both of them in this session. Ellen Romberg will help you examine your current role and where you want to be, understand your organizational structure and culture and to identify ways to offer your perspective effectively and respectfully and identify resources to support your goals. Phyllis Hayes will highlight the complementary and critical component of the awareness of your personal power, and using yourself as an instrument. This has an impact on all interpersonal communications including relationship building, negotiation and influence.


Track: Accountability & Integrity

To Tweet or Not to Tweet: The Ethics of Managing Your Dual Roles on Social Media

Speaker: Keidra Chaney, Founder of The Learned Fangirl and Contributing Editor of JSTOR Daily

When an employee speaks on social media, do they speak for themselves or for the organization? We’ll tackle this challenging topic with the help of Keidra Chaney, Co-Founder of The Learned Fangirl. Issues to be discussed include social media branding for your nonprofit; best practices in social media policies; when it is important to keep your personal brand separate from your organizational brand online and determining when it is most productive to align them.


Creating Your Niche: Differentiate for Success

Speaker: Gretchen Slusser, Executive Director, Cabrini Green Legal Aid

Finding your organization’s “sweet spot” in the competitive nonprofit landscape is a challenging undertaking. Three years ago, Cabrini Green Legal Aid (CGLA) implemented a strategic plan that focused on positioning the organization as one of the top three in its service area. This ambitious approach resulted in major growth in individual giving and foundation support, a 28% budget increase and doubled staff capacity. CGLA Executive Director Gretchen Slusser will discuss the process of differentiating your services, focusing on what you do best—both from internal and external stakeholder perspectives, common challenges during this process and how to overcome them, and realistic timelines and expectations for completion.


Breaking Down Organizational Silos

Speakers: Susie Quern Pratt and Jenny Ellis Richards, Principals, Pratt Richards Group

Program evaluation is often the moment in which the different branches of organizational work go head-to-head: development staff feel acutely the demands of funders, executive staff feel the pressure of their board and program staff are plagued by a lack of time. In short, no one is happy. Using a cross-organizational team model, we’ll institute a new kind of agency conversation focused on organizational learning. Specifically, this session will address:

  • the role of the Evaluation Working Group (or other cross-organizational teams) in effectively moving work forward;
  • the power of a Theory of Change in creating a common narrative for organizational work;
  • the importance of regular reflective conversation for all levels of staff.

Participants will leave with a better understanding of how to create the conditions for comprehensive organizational conversation and change, and some tools for getting this conversation started at their own organization.


Track: Resource Generation

When Is It OK To Say “No” To A Donor?

Speaker: Gwen Perry Davis, Deputy Director of Development, Museum of Contemporary Art

Saying “no” in life can be terrifying, especially when it means refusing a donor’s offer. However, sometimes “no” is the best answer for the organization’s short or long-term interests! How can you successfully navigate this challenging situation? We’ll cover how to work with your board and leadership to create processes for accepting gifts, how to effectively communicate your organization’s needs to donors and how to maintain a relationship with a donor if you decline a gift.


Increasing Your ROI: Recurring Gifts

Speakers: Betsy Harman, Manager, Donor Cultivation, and Aaron LaMonica Weier, Manager of Digital Engagement-Cultivation, both of Feeding America; Kim Luckey, Vice President of Development, Lawrence Hall Youth Services

A monthly giving program can provide a regular, dependable income stream and a pipeline to major gifts for your organization: data shows the annual retention rates for recurring donors is about 73% higher than for single gift donors and revenue per donor is 70% higher for donors who make recurring gifts! In the case of Lawrence Hall Youth Services, a Sustaining Gift Program is one way to ensure a steady, predictable cash flow. This method of continuous giving also benefits donors, streamlining the donation process and, as the organization has discovered, these types of donors are able to give more annually, resulting in greater overall impact. Join us for this lively discussion to learn about recruiting, keeping, upgrading, and reinstating monthly givers; why your organization should consider focusing on monthly giving; successful online and offline tactics to grow your monthly donor file; and how to make the case for investing in this type of fundraising. The helpful resources presented will enable you to begin a new program or improve your existing efforts with this increasingly important fundraising method.


Selling Your Impact: Data, Donors and Dollars

Speaker: Sophie Walker, Engagement Manager, Mission Measurement

What is your organization’s value proposition to funders, and how do you tell a data-driven story about your impact? In this hands-on session, learn how measurement in the social sector is evolving, and how this will impact your organization. Then we’ll help you identify priority outcomes and measure your progress in ways that are concrete, meaningful and demonstrate your impact to funders.


Track: C-Suite

A special opportunity for C-Suite leadership to tackle topics such as effective engagement across generations, research-based trends, and connecting with experts about impact investing. C-Suite sessions will take place in the afternoon, and leaders can register for the entire Symposium day or just for the luncheon and C-Suite sessions.

Working and Leading Together: Strategies for Cross-Generational Development and Collaboration

Speakers: Richard A. Brown, Vice President, American Express Philanthropy and Trish Tchume, National Director, Young Nonprofit Professionals Network (YNPN)

Research tells us that successful leadership development requires a framework that emphasizes key areas including access to strong and vibrant professional networks and growth of emotional intelligence. Learn more about this framework from Trish Tchume, Director of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network, and then hear from Richard Brown, Vice President of American Express Philanthropy, how this concept has been successfully applied in early career leadership programs. A moderated Q&A session will follow the presentation, and will highlight what your organizations are doing to support emerging leadership; what the emerging generations need to learn to be effective change agents in the nonprofit sector; and what we can do in our own organizations to embrace and leverage intergenerational diversity.


Panel Discussion: Impact Investing

Panelists: Clare Golla, Financial Advisor & Vice President, Bernstein Global Wealth Management; Tom Trinley, Director-Finance & Administration, Gaylord and Dorothy Donnelly Foundation; Daniel Nielsen, Director-Socially Responsible Investing, Christian Brothers Investment Services Inc.

Moderator: Pam Schilling, Associate Professor, Finance & Strategy, School of Business & Nonprofit Management, North Park University

A panel of funders and investors come together to discuss the latest developments and trends in impact investing and its potential to influence your nonprofit. Topics to be tackled include the role of C-Suite staff and board members in the investment process and the various strategies that enable investors to increase the impact of their investments beyond financial return. Attendees will also hear examples of impact investments, how these investments were evaluated and how impact was measured. The panel presentation will be followed by a Q&A to share additional thoughts and questions on topics like risk tolerance, the process of choosing strategic investments, fiduciary responsibility and the internal resources required to make worthwhile investments.

2014 Conference

Celebrating 15 years as the Midwest’s largest nonprofit management conference.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Thank you for attending the 15th Annual Symposium for Nonprofit Professionals and Volunteers focused on Next Practices.

Your feedback matters! Make sure to complete the electronic evaluation form so that we can learn more about your experience at this year’s event.

 The Axelson Center’s 15th anniversary programming is supported by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

Major Sponsors

Covenant Ministries of Benevolence
Fifth Third Bank
Nonprofit HR


Alliance of Nonprofits for Insurance
Bea & VandenBerk
BMO Harris Bank
Careers in Nonprofits
CL Graphics
Neon CRM
Arthur J Gallagher & Co.
Lipman Hearne
MB Financial
Pierce Family Foundation
Curtis Jones and Paula Banks-Jones

Media Engagement Sponsor

Community Media Workshop

2013 Conference

Monday, June 3, 2013 — Holiday Inn at Merchandise Mart

More than 570 nonprofit leaders and volunteers met on June 3-4 to learn new and effective strategies that will help them lead, be innovative, and engage boards, staff and volunteers, donors, and community. They were attendees at North Park University’s 14th Annual Axelson Center Symposium for Nonprofit Professionals and Volunteers, with the theme, “The Engagement Effect.”

Winners of annual awards recognizing area nonprofits were announced at a luncheon emceed by Dr. Pier Rogers, Director of the Axelson Center for Nonprofit Management.

The Axelson Center Excellent Emerging Nonprofit Organization Award went to Porchlight Counseling Services. The award is presented to one young organization with potential for growth and greater effectiveness. A capacity building package valued at over $25,000 is presented to the winner. A $2,500 cash grant was also included, funded Curtis Jones and Paula Banks-Jones.

The Alford-Axelson Award for Nonprofit Managerial Excellence went to Between Friends (small nonprofits), and Concordia Place (large nonprofits), both in Chicago. The award recognizes nonprofit organizations that embody exemplary management practices. Grants of $7,500 each were presented to the winners, sponsored by Fifth Third Bank.

The Axelson Center’s 15th anniversary will be in 2014! Do you have a suggestion for a specific feature that might be added for the celebration?  Contact us today.

Porchlight Counseling Services award video

Between Friends award video

Concordia Place award video


2013 Program Brochure, including speakers, sessions, and prices

2013 Symposium Speaker Bios

Symposium Handouts (login required)

Pre-Conference Revenue Institute:
Monday, June 3, 9:00 am to 5:15 pm
Symposium and Resource Fair:
Tuesday, June 4, 8:00 am to 4:45 pm

Thank you to our sponsors!

Covenant Ministries of Benevolence
Chicago Tribune
Fifth Third Bank
Nonprofit HR Solutions
Harris Bank
CL Graphics
Chase Bank
The Alford Group
Pierce Family Charitable Foundation
Keystone Alliance
Careers in Nonprofits
Gallagher Religious and Nonprofit Practice Group
First Nonprofit Insurance Company
MB Financial
Great American
Active Network
Gretchen Hasse Video
Advocate Christ Medical Center Hope Children’s Hospital
Curtis Jones and Paula Banks-Jones
Law Offices of Kathryn M. Vanden Berk, PC
David L Bea & Associates

2012 Conference

Tuesday, June 5, 2012 — Holiday Inn at Merchandise Mart

Your nonprofit began in a moment of inspiration, a moment when a visionary founder or founders took action to create a better world. But what begins with vision and passion inevitably encounters…reality. Funding cuts, shifts in community needs, increased competition, the temptation of “mission creep,” and even the simple dissipation of human energy are just a few of the hurdles that blunt an organization’s ability to achieve its vision. How do the most successful nonprofits keep their vision fresh and relevant in the face of such change? The 13th Annual Symposium invites you to step out of your current constraints and consider a new arsenal of tools and resources aimed at creating and fostering a sustainable, infectious vision.

Keynote Speaker: Robert Egger, Founder and President, DC Central Kitchen

Closing Keynote Address: Aaron Hurst, President and Founder, Taproot Foundation

Thank you to our sponsors!

Covenant Ministries of Benevolence
Chicago Tribune
Fifth Third Bank
Nonprofit HR Solutions
BMO Harris Bank
Pierce Family Charitable Foundation
Rush Powers Media
CL Graphics
Chase Bank
The Alford Group
Covenant Retirement Communities
Careers in Nonprofits
Gallagher Religious and Nonprofit Practice Group
Curtis Jones ad Paula Banks-Jones
Law Offices of Kathryn M. Vanden Berk, PC

2011  Conference

2011 — Holiday Inn at Merchandise Mart

We’d like to thank all those who attended as speakers, sponsors, volunteers, and participants. Our feedback shows that you found our sessions valuable, the networking critical, and the new venue very hospitable.

Information and materials about the 2011 Symposium:

  • The Symposium was held at the Holiday Inn Chicago Mart Plaza.
  • Strategies for Excelling in a Fast-Changing World
    Movement is afoot. New technologies, changing funding patterns, demographic shifts and other major trends are profoundly impacting the work in our sector. Through strategy-level discussions and practically-focused “mini” workshops, the 12th Annual Symposium employed a cutting-edge approach to trend watching. Major trends were considered from the perspective of key stakeholder groups with strategies offered at every level.
  • Conference Resource Materials (login required, for registered participants only)
  • View the program booklet

We’d like to extend a special thank you to the Twelfth Annual Symposium Sponsors:

Nonprofit HR
Covenant Retirement Communities
Covenant Ministries of Benevolence
Chicago Tribune
Fifth Third Bank
The Alford Group
Pierce Family Charitable Foundation
Rush Powers Media
CL Graphics
Chase Bank
Careers in Nonprofits
Gallagher Religious and Nonprofit Practice
Curtis Jones and Paula Banks Jones
Law Offices of Kathryn M. Vanden Berk, PC
Association of Consultants to Nonprofits
FPO Solutions
Advocate Christ Medial Center Hope Children’s Hospital