Inspiration from the Alliance for Nonprofit Management Conference 2012

[written Friday, August 10]

I just had the pleasure of attending the Alliance for Nonprofit Management’s annual conference in Grand Rapids, Michigan. As it was winding down today, everyone was asking: What do you think? Have you enjoyed it? Are you glad you came?

What makes a conference worth the time? There is always the opportunity to learn, to be sure, and more than that, an opportunity to meet and talk with others who care about what you care about. But “real work” — not to mention the family I have left at home — is always lurking in the background, so “worth the time” can be a complicated calculus.

Over time, I have clarified my own criteria, encapsulated in two questions: Did I learn something? and Was I inspired? I am happy — even thrilled — to confirm that this time, at this conference, I did learn something. Even more importantly, I was inspired.

As I sit here at the Cleveland airport waiting for my second and final flight home this evening, three things in particular stand out.

1.)  First, there are few experiences as energizing as connecting with people who are passionate about “doing good.” That passion was especially evident in the session that The Foundation Center’s Cynthia Bailie and I co-facilitated on current trends in collaboration and merger. Listening to the stories of those who attended — before, during, and after the session — was inspiring. No one is doing this work because it is easy. We are all in the trenches with nonprofits because we share their passion and truly want to be of service. I love hearing those stories, and thinking about how we could all do what we do in an even better way. Kudos to all those who choose to wrestle with these questions and strive to make a difference in the world.

2.)  A second moment of inspiration came this morning, during a session on leadership. Michelle Gislason of CompassPoint Nonprofit Services asked the audience to consider a question: What about leadership is ending, or what would you like to see end? One of the first responses came from Ashley Stewart of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, who spoke of a desire to end the emphasis on positional leadership: “What I hope to see change…[is] more people leading from their seat. More people believing that ‘I can be an instrument of change,’ that ‘I can make a difference, no matter where I am in an organization or community.'” I have a strong interest in education (particularly K-12) — how we educate, how that changes over time, how that must change as we go forward. And while there is much in our system that needs improvement, I do see change. I see schools focusing more on collaborative learning, students as leaders, students as mentors, students as changemakers in their community. Those students will be the leaders of our sector in ten, twenty, thirty years, and it is my opinion — my belief — that they will not struggle with this concept of positional vs. “from-your-seat” leadership in the way that we do now. I found myself feeling optimistic in that moment, grounded in the knowledge that we have a long way to go in redefining leadership for the 21st century and beyond, but confident that we are indeed inching forward, little by little.

3.)  My third moment of inspiration was more personal. Like everyone at this week’s conference, I was impressed by and excited for Valaida Fullwood, author of Giving Back and winner of this year’s Terry McAdam Book Award. In her acceptance address, Ms. Fullwood talked about (among other things) her journey as a writer, and what it meant to her. She introduced that story with a quote from Toni Morrison: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” The quote sounded familiar (I am sure I have heard it before at some point), but in this context, and at this point in my life, it struck me in a completely new way. There is indeed a book I have long wanted to read, on a subject that means a great deal to me. I found myself unable to sleep last night, thinking about that book, and challenging myself to (finally) do something about it. Will I? Who knows. I suspect “real life” will sweep over me like a tidal wave once I land in Boston and I will acknowledge, however reluctantly, that not all dreams can be pursued at once. I will not soon forget Valaida Fullwood’s story, however, and perhaps one day I will be able to report that she not only inspired me, but inspired me to write “that book.” In the meantime, I return home energized and looking forward to continued collaboration with all those in the sector who care about the public good, social change, and fellowship on the journey. Thanks to the Alliance for hosting, and to all who attended for sharing. Onward!

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