A Look Back At 2023 and Ahead to The New Year

Looking Back On 2023

In a year filled with disruption and uncertainty on so many fronts, we were privileged to partner with more than 200 inspiring organizations on the forefront of social, environmental, and educational struggles for a just future in our nation and beyond. We supported their efforts to develop new strategies and business plans, to negotiate powerful mergers and alliances, to develop more effective boards and leadership teams, to initiate succession planning, to launch and complete important change initiatives, and to accelerate their social impact.

In 2023 we also completed an internal initiative we call RTSP 2.0, an update and reboot of our popular Real-Time Strategic Planning methodology which we are rolling out with new engagements. After a well-deserved break over the December holidays, our full team is back at work supporting our clients. Their work is why we’re here.


The Disruptive Leader Interviews

To mark our firm’s Twenty-fifth year of service to the social sector, in 2023 we initiated an exciting series of interviews with clients we call The Disruptive Leaders. While some of these folks have a long history in the sector, and many are founders, others bring newer voices to the work. This mix was intentional, as we viewed this special anniversary as an opportunity to highlight the work of exceptional social sector leaders, each of whom, and their organizations, brings new energy and new, disruptive ideas to the sector.

Speaking with Senior Consultant Christine Chen, Leslie Gill and Ali Hogan of Rung for Women, a career accelerator in St. Louis, described their work to bring women into historically underrepresented careers, levelling the paying field and counteracting the glass ceiling on women’s earnings. Daniel Katz, who founded Rainforest Alliance while still in his twenties, and Camila Flanagan, Manager of Digital Fundraising, discussed RA’s thirty-six year history supporting sustainable food producers around the world. Iara Peng, founder and CEO of JustFund, described how her twenty-five years in the sector led her to create a tech-first model for philanthropy, moving money quickly and directly to communities of color. Fatimeh Pahlavan and G. Sequane Lawrence of Revolution Institute, told Senior Consultant Ali Carella about their work to create economic opportunity in challenged communities and their commitment to do so in a culturally appropriate manner. Partner Lara Jakubowski interviewed Kathleen Enright, President & CEO of Council on Foundations, and Ann Mei Chang, President & CEO of Candid about the transfer of CF Insights, a service for community foundations, from Candid to the Council, resulting in better alignment for both organizations. Partner Scott Cotenoff sat down with Rinku Sen, Executive Director of Narrative Initiative. Rinku shared her social justice origin story, then delved into the essential balance between thinking long-term and acting immediately, the interplay between strategy and action. Most recently, Ali Carella engaged Steven Renderos, Executive Director of MediaJustice, and Hannah Sassaman, Executive Director of People’s Tech, in a crucial conversation about AI and technology’s role in the nonprofit sector and its impact on marginalized communities.

Reviewing these conversations, I was stuck by the commonalities among organizations – and leaders – doing distinct work in different places. Three key themes stood out to me:

  • Culture First. Whether the work is job training, environmental sustainability, economic development, or philanthropy, each of these leaders pursues their mission with a commitment to building an organization that reflects the communities served and models their own values of equity, justice and belonging.
  • Strategy is Essential. Each leader described the thought and deliberation that went into forming clear, powerful strategies for bringing their vision to reality.
  • Tech is Key. Tech innovation is essential to each organization’s success. This is as true for a news resource for community foundations as it is of a tech-first fundraising platform. Yet, while tech is a key tool, the advance of AI must be reckoned with by every nonprofit.


Original Staff-Generated Content

Beyond these interviews, in 2023 our team was busy creating useful content for the sector.

This included an important piece by Senior Consultant Humberto Camarena that appeared in Stanford Social Innovation Review: Riding the Wave of Abundance as well as blogs on a wide range of issues of interest to the sector:

The Human Side of Mergers: Nurturing Trust and Overcoming Resistance (Bral Spight, Senior Consultant)

From Insight to Action: Unveiling the Art of Transformative Feedback (Arielle Donelan, Associate Consultant)

Fresh Perspectives on Social Sector Challenges (David La Piana, Managing Partner)

Being an “Elder at work” – the other side of the Generational Divide (Scott Cotenoff, Partner)

Thriving on Purpose: How Young Professionals Build Financial Stability in the Nonprofit World (Rylan Kepner, Associate Consultant)

Navigating Succession Planning (Christine Chen, Senior Consultant)

Now Is Time to Get Gen Z in the Nonprofit Sector: What We Can Gain from Private Sector Layoffs (Sumaya Quillian, Associate Consultant)

Staying Connected: How to Build Strong Nonprofit Culture in a Hybrid Workplace (Humberto Camarena, Senior Consultant & Jordyn Youngelson, Intern)

The Backlash to Workplace DEI (Eileen Garcia, Senior Consultant)

Chasing Impact Podcast: The Ultimate Guide to Strategic Restructuring (David La Piana, Managing Partner)

Strategy is Back in Style (Lara Jakubowski, Partner)

An Interview with Jacquie Atchison, Executive Director of The Arts Council for Monterey County (Madison McAleese, Associate Consultant)

Coping with Inflation (David La Piana, Managing Partner)

2023 Forecast: Uncertain Future Amid Inflation and a Potential Recession (Ali Carella, Senior Consultant)


Looking Ahead to 2024

It is only January, but we can already see key drivers of social sector concern in the new year. Here are the things I’ll be looking at in the coming months.

COP 28 – the global climate conference – highlighted two things. First, that climate change is accelerating and with it the impacts of unpredictable climate-driven stressors across the planet. At the same time, the world’s governments and fossil-fuel dependent corporations are not taking the steps required to minimize these impacts, which fall first and hardest on those countries that contributed the least to the problem. Beyond much-hyped announcements, concrete actions continue to be both incremental and insufficient. Since we cannot rely on government to change this dynamic, the social sector is our last, best hope, demanding concrete and meaningful steps NOW.

Political polarization has reached a point where we seem to live in two separate, mutually hostile countries, each claiming to be the real America. This is a growing phenomenon around the world. Dialogue across political divides has become increasingly difficult, if not dangerous, with the specter of violence being raised in social media and even by political figures, in ways we have not seen since the 1960s. Again, the social sector is our best hope for both better understanding the roots of polarization and addressing it. The Ford Foundation’s Reimagine Balance effort, spearheaded by the Barcelona-based Institute for Integrated Transitions, is leading the global effort.

Perhaps the greatest challenge we face this year is an election that some believe could be America’s last. My blogs generally avoid politics, and I deeply respect the broad diversity of opinion we celebrate in this country, but I am going to depart from that rule because the issues have never been so stark or the consequences so dire. In a contest between a “normal” conservative party (the Republicans since the Civil Rights Movement) and a “normal” liberal party (the Democrats since the 1960s), reasonable people could disagree on policy questions. But the 2024 election is not a contest between two competing democratic ideologies. It is a death match between an imperfect Democratic party that nonetheless believes in the rule of law and the form of government described in our founding documents and a Republican party that now resembles, and openly embraces, 1930s Fascism. The Republican Party has no platform, only fealty to Trump. It advances no policies, only grievances. It desires no compromise, only the destruction of the opposition. If “winning” requires defaulting on our debt, sending the world into an unprecedented fiscal crisis; abandoning Ukraine to Putin; allowing the world’s climate to warm ever faster; even preventing a woman from ending a pregnancy with a fetus that has no chance of surviving; so be it. There is no heart, no compassion, no soul, and perhaps worse, no thinking in today’s Republican party, only the desire for raw power, which can then be used to punish those it dislikes – the press, military leaders loyal to their oath, the FBI and justice department, and everyone who has ever criticized Donald Trump. This Fascist movement must be defeated, and soundly, in every election until a new conservative movement rises, willing to contest ideas with centrists, liberals, and progressives within the framework of our democracy.

Once again, the social sector is critical to this do-or-die moment. Groups from the ACLU to ActBlue, to EMILY’s List to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund – all of which we have been privileged to support – and so many more social sector actors, are on the front lines of this fight. Join them and others, as we are, in fighting to save America from authoritarianism.

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