Nonprofit Summit Brings Together Nonprofits, Funders + Government, Aiming for Stronger Partnership

Monday, December 2, 2013

Roomblog“Those who learn to collaborate and improvise are most effectively able to prevail. If you are able to cooperate, you are going to make it. If you go your own way, you are going to fail.” That was a lesson from the work of Charles Darwin that keynote speaker Kyle Caldwell, Program Director at the C.S. Mott Foundation, delivered to an audience of grantmakers, nonprofit representatives, and public officials at Donors Forum's recent Nonprofit Summit. This theme of partnership and collaboration was echoed by the other speakers and panelists, who noted the importance of partnerships between the public and nonprofit sectors in order to effectively deliver services where they are needed.

EdgarblogThe Honorable Jim Edgar, former Illinois governor, spoke at the summit and emphasized a key element that drew all of the participants together, saying that “if we remember the word ‘compassion,’ it will make Illinois a place we are proud to call home.” Donors Forum's President and CEO Valerie S. Lies echoed Governor Edgar’s sentiment. “The value that binds all of us together is compassion and our deep commitment to helping others,” she said.

The Summit, part of Donors Forum's Building a Stronger Illinois initiative, brought together nonprofits, funders, and government officials to build stronger partnerships and work together to overcome obstacles that sometimes prevent these partnerships from being as effective as they could be.

Along with remarks from Governor Edgar, Mr. Caldwell, and Ms. Lies, the summit also included introductory remarks from Donald Cooke, Senior Vice President for Philanthropy at the Robert R. McCormick Foundation and Donors Forum's Board Chair, and a panel discussion moderated by State Senator Heather Steans with seven state legislators: Senator David Koehler, Senator Chapin Rose, Senator Patricia van Pelt, Representative Kelly Burke, Representative Elizabeth Hernandez, Representative David McSweeney, and Representative Sandra Pihos.

Mr. Cooke emphasized the diversity of organizations represented in the audience and the importance of those organizations and sectors represented working together. “To be better individually, we need to be better collectively on things that impact the state,” he said.

Ms. Lies continued the emphasis on collective action, saying that the summit was about “how to engage every player in the state, between state government, philanthropy, and nonprofit organizations in order to support and serve the residents of the state.” The nonprofit sector is critical for many reasons, Ms. Lies said. Not only does it provide a range of services to vulnerable populations, but the sector as a whole is a strong economic engine, employing more than 523,000 individuals throughout the state, including in communities that often experience few other job opportunities. “They are more than just community assets, they are economic engines in Illinois,” she said.

Ms. Lies noted that while the problems the State and nonprofit sector face are considerable, there are reasons for optimism based on recent successes. Donors Forum began its Public-Nonprofit Partnership Initiative in 2009, and among its accomplishments are having five State agencies streamline their contracting and reporting requirements and creating a central repository of paperwork so that nonprofit organizations do not need to repeatedly submit the same information. Ms. Lies noted there are still significant obstacles, including the backlog of payments, burdensome reporting requirements, and understaffed public agencies, but the progress already made should be taken as an encouraging sign that more progress is possible. She said that the progress made so far “leads me to be optimistic about the ways this audience will develop new practices to strengthen the work in which we are all engaged.”

Governor Edgar built on Ms. Lies remarks by emphasizing the importance of focusing on people who need help, and of creating partnerships between non-profits and the public sector to effectively meet these needs. “My administration made it clear that we are in partnership with non-profit organizations, we are not adversaries, and we were not going to take our responsibilities and shift them over to them,” he said. Compromise that advances programs, rather than destructive stalemates, can best help the people of Illinois. Governor Edgar said it was critical for people to remember their over-riding mission, saying that “No matter what issues government is faced with, you are there to provide help to people who need help, and what you do can make a difference in people’s lives—sometimes the difference between life and death.”

Kyle Caldwell of the C.S. Mott Foundation spoke about his experiences as part of the Michigan Nonprofit Association working with Michigan government to build connections between the public and nonprofit sector. Mr. Caldwell said it was important to remember that different branches of government must be approached in different ways; having separate strategies for legislators, regulators, and executives is more effective than trying to bring all branches together with a single strategy. In Michigan, they had different approaches for each group. A caucus of legislators was created to address issues affecting the nonprofit sectors, and these legislators were able to unite in agreement of the importance of supporting the nonprofit sector even during otherwise fractious times. For regulators, Mr. Caldwell said they established a series of meetings between representatives of the philanthropic and nonprofit sector and regulators such as the attorney general in order to moderate possible disputes without having to engage in difficult court battles. The third approach involved engaging the executive branch on their top priorities and working to see how the nonprofit community could support pieces of the policy agenda. This cooperation led to the first universal early childhood education initiative in the state.

Mr. Caldwell said that the conclusion that can be drawn from these efforts is simple: “Engagement is not just nice, it’s necessary.” He emphasized the importance of continual engagement, instead of just presenting information and hoping the public sector will make good use of it. “It’s not enough to tell your story. You have to engage, you have to find a way to stay in the mix.”

A common theme was summarized by by Representative Burke, who said that often “the first time you hear from a nonprofit organization is when there is a problem. That is not the first time you want to meet them.” The panelists expressed a willingness to listen to nonprofits and help them accomplish their mission, but they said it helps if representatives from nonprofits understand how the appropriations process works so they can work with the constraints and pressures under which legislators operate.

Along with providing needed services, the legislators said that nonprofits had a strong role to play in providing information about policies and programs that can bring benefits to communities. Senator Van Pelt said it was important for nonprofit organizations to “come in, have a conversation to help me learn about an issue, and then become true advocates for the issue.” Information showing the effect of an organization’s programs can help build support for the work they are doing. “Empirical evidence is important, but we have to make sure it is credible and we have to be able to answer challenges that might come out,” Representative Pihos said.

The legislators also agreed that pension reform was critical to the State being able to move forward and address its fiscal problems, though they cautioned that pension reform alone would not address all issues. Further budget cuts, new revenue enhancements, changes in the current tax structure, and re-inventions of how the State works with nonprofit organizations were possible changes suggested by members of the panel.

The panel discussion concluded with the legislators agreeing on two elements. They all said they would be willing to be part of a caucus focused on issues relating to nonprofit organizations, and they all agreed that the State should work on a single, central system for background checks of potential employees and volunteers.

Participants broke into small group discussions to share insights and possible next steps resulting from the ideas discussed to that point; many of their comments focused on the importance of building effective communications between legislators and the nonprofit sector. One group suggested that Donors Forum conduct advocacy training to help them learn how to best engage with legislators, while another suggested that public officials need to be proactive in reaching out to nonprofit organizations and helping them understand how best to communicate with them. Having a designated liaison to the nonprofit community would be beneficial, particularly if this individual was not in a political post and could act in a nonpartisan fashion.

Another group response mentioned the importance of telling the stories of nonprofits’ work to public officials, including activities that cannot be easily quantified. The legislators agreed that nonprofits are valuable because they have boots on the ground, and nonprofit organizations need to use that position to communicate with legislators about what is happening in communities and how benefits can be spread as widely as possible.

In concluding the summit, Ms. Lies built on the willingness of public officials to work with the nonprofit sector. “Legislators offered some very clear signals that they want to have a deeper understanding of our work, that they want to share with us, but we have to set the table for them.” The groundwork had been established, she said, for more improvements to come. “I am optimistic that we have the will and the way to build a stronger Illinois. We will build it through the work we do collectively.”

-- Jason Hardy, Member Services Support

View photos from the event on Facebook.