To What End?

On Monday, July 29 I had the opportunity and (and the honor) to co-host the 2019 Symposium on Public Policy with ARNOVA. As you know, ARNOVA (Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action) brings together the best research talent from across the nation, and indeed the world, to examine issues of deep importance to our sector. Our aim for the symposium was two-fold: 1.) to build and deepen ties between the research and practitioner communities; and 2.) to identify a set of policy topics that are of high interest to the sector and determine what further work is needed to prepare and refine those policy topics into policy options that might be advanced to policymakers.

I believe – and hope others share the belief – that our time together in this symposium was extremely productive. And, as I reflected on the day’s event after it was over, I thought of the insightful conversations we’d had on these topics (volunteerism, advocacy, tax policy and its impact on giving, sector oversight, and philanthropy’s ability to invest in low-income communities) and our examination of each from the perspective of data, policy, and politics. And it was deeply satisfying to recall many of the participants in the session beginning to align around the need to sharpen and advance these ideas in the policy arena.

I also spent some time reflecting on a much larger question – one which we typically do not explicitly name in gatherings like the one I just described: that is to what end? – the one question that helps us to frame the ultimate results we hope to achieve through all the various research, policy development, and advocacy efforts. In all this work, what, ultimately, do we want to make happen?

Every organization, of course, would answer this question differently. For more than a year, Independent Sector has been working to discern its own answer to this question. As a membership organization that represents nonprofits, foundations, and corporate giving programs of all shapes and sizes, this has been particularly difficult work. But we have made slow and steady progress.

Independent Sector has now set a core goal that serves as a north star for all our work, including our policy efforts. Our desired goal (also known as our “whole population result statement”) is that “all people in the US thrive.” Yes, that is a very ambitious, aspirational result, and one that we will never be able to reach on our own. We also believe, that at its core, it is what the entire sector strives for in some way or another – to see people and the natural world thriving. So, this goal, or desired result, though a very big stretch for us, feels increasingly right. It also causes some discomfort. It’s a north star that leads us to ask ourselves some hard questions about our work, including our policy efforts. In short, we are learning – as many of you reading this email are learning (or have learned) as well – that if we don’t stop to explicitly ask ourselves if a particular policy proposal helps all people to thrive, we could, in fact, be perpetuating a policy environment where inequities grow rather than diminish. Asking this question is one way to break this cycle. Asking this question forces us to think of the good of the whole – not just of a part.  And, as our Public Policy Fellow Jeremie Greer pointed out in this week’s symposium, having clarity on your desired result helps you better understand where you are and aren’t willing to make trade-offs in the sausage-making policy process.

I am not sharing any of this with you to tell you that we have it all figured out. We don’t. Nor are we suggesting that this path we’ve started down is the only path. It is not. This is messy. This is hard. This feels vital. And this is strategic for us as an organization. So, I am sharing this now to give you some insight into how we are trying to look at the world and all the work we do. We have a very long way to go. But having a point on the horizon at which we are relentlessly aimed feels like a very good start.

In many ways, we think that this process we are in now is exactly what our founder, John Gardner, had in mind when he wrote about the critical work of organizational and societal renewal. Sometimes it’s good to look back to know that you’re on the right path forward.

As always, thanks for spending some time with this month’s Voices for Good. I hope you might be reading this in a beach chair or hammock somewhere. But if you have interest in this conversation, please let us know. We have much to learn and to do, but we hope you enjoy your August.

Types: Blog, Policy Update
Global Topics: Public Policy, Voices for Good