For those of you who had the chance to join us for Upswell Chicago, you might have noticed that our Presidential Campaign Forum on the Nonprofit Sector turned out to be a bit different than the event we spent three months planning.
In fairness, we always knew there was a risk.
Upswell is a convening of our community – of the charitable nonprofit sector and of changemakers of all sizes and types. It seemed critically important that we use that gathering to engage all the declared presidential campaigns in a conversation about issues of importance to the nation and to our sector. As I hope you would agree, any presidential candidate, Democrat or Republican, who is intent on repairing and rebuilding a deeply divided nation, will need this sector as a strategic thought partner and on the ground “doing the work” partner. They’d show up for sure – right?
Engaging presidential campaigns – or any campaign – in this sort of conversation is our opportunity, and I would argue, our responsibility. So that is what Independent Sector set out to do. And, in doing so, we set out to model how sector organizations of all types could do the same.
We turned to some great resources from our partner Nonprofit VOTE to make sure we understood the guidelines to follow. We invited every presidential campaign to complete a brief questionnaire and asked each campaign to send a senior representative (policy director, political director) to join us for a forum in Chicago, moderated by David Brooks, columnist for the New York Times, and Helene Gayle, president and CEO of the Chicago Community Trust. We made sure that every campaign would have equal opportunity to present their views on issues like charitable giving, volunteerism and national service, and the health of the nonprofit workforce.
And then we waited. We got our first commitment within a few weeks and felt pretty good. And then we waited some more. We continued to press the campaigns – not just a chosen few – but ALL of them to give us an answer. Slowly the RSVP list grew, and we had passed both our internal (and the legal) threshold for holding the event.
Then we got to Chicago. The stage was literally set. The livestream was tested. The moderators were briefed. We had a forum to engage the campaigns on the sector’s core policy issues – until we didn’t. In the last hours before “air” we had two campaigns withdraw. And then we had one – one campaign left for the stage.
This is when our commitment to model best practices for nonprofits became extraordinarily important. We could not proceed with the event as was planned. A conversation with a single campaign about policy issues and positions could be perceived as a political endorsement – something a nonprofit, c3 organization is legally unable to do. Independent Sector’s role suddenly shifted, and in the space of two hours we had to redesign the entire session. We chose not to cancel, which would have been a very legitimate response. Rather, we chose to engage the Klobuchar representative in a conversation about process (how do policy positions form within presidential campaigns) and about engagement (how and why should nonprofit organizations interact with political campaigns). David Brooks and Helene Gayle were extraordinarily skilled and nimble in keeping what was an entirely different and valuable conversation on the right side of the rules. We are deeply grateful. You can view a recording of the livestream below:
So, why tell this story of what is a failure of sorts? Because it is an example of “failing forward”. Stepping into the work of planning this session and engaging the campaigns was absolutely the right thing to do. We would do it again – and will. And we are already seeing new opportunities to engage all the campaigns in this conversation about the power of our sector as a partner. That is true, because we took this step.
If Upswell showed us anything, it showed us that we are a community of leaders chomping at the bit to do the work of strengthening civil society in America. We are the indispensable partner in making that happen. We are at the table. We need the presidential candidates, and all candidates who have a role in the work, to show up. There is a lot at stake. And we are ready to get to work.
My reflection on all this? Take a risk. Show up. Know the rules. Press ahead.
Thanks, as always, for taking the time to read through this month’s Voices for Good. I am off to San Diego to join our sector colleagues at the annual Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Association (ARNOVA) conference. Building deeper ties between the research and practitioner communities is core to our work at IS – and I am anxious to be with these colleagues for the next few days.
I will be equally anxious to get home for Thanksgiving. My son returns from his first semester in college and I get to return to my favorite role — “Dad.”