From Conversation to Action: Updates Inspired by On The Table

By Lauren Zimmerman  |  July 28th, 2017

In May the Philadelphia Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation joined forces to launch On the Table Philly. On the Table was an initiative to engage area residents in open dialogue and to inspire solutions around the topics of participants’ choosing that can strengthen Philadelphia communities. A team of Fairmount Ventures staff decided to jump in to this inaugural round of On the Table conversations by convening members of the region’s nonprofit organizations around this question: “How do we support the nonprofit sector’s passionate workforce and retain the talent critical to ensuring the effectiveness of your work and the vibrancy of the sector?”

Read on for a look at our group’s perspectives and for a mid-summer update from one of our participants about how she converted her Fairmount On the Table discussion into action.

Breaking Bread this Spring

Fairmount Ventures has worked with hundreds of nonprofits over the years, and we often hear from our clients that they struggle with staffing issues. Everything from low morale to frequent turnover can be disruptive to day-to-day operations and the ability to achieve long-term organizational goals. We tackled this issue during our dinner on May 23rd, one of more than 300 On the Table discussions that happened in kitchens, conference rooms and restaurants citywide. The Fairmount gathering included 14 executives and emerging leaders from 12 nonprofits that address a variety of areas, from the arts and youth development to food access and human services.

Fairmount Ventures hosted an impressive group of executives and emerging leaders from 12 nonprofits for the inaugural round of On the Table conversations in Philadelphia.

Fairmount Ventures hosted an impressive group of executives and emerging leaders from 12 nonprofits for the inaugural round of On the Table conversations in Philadelphia.

What did we learn?

  1. Change from the Day to Day: Employees seek out opportunities that take them out of the day to day of their own work. What are other employees or departments working on? What skills do others use in their own day-to-day work that I don’t know about?
  2. Communication: Employees desire clear channels of communication for showing both appreciation and encouragement, as well as criticism and concern, across the organization.
  3. Commitment to the Mission, Inside and Out: Staff want to benefit from the same ethos of service that nonprofits practice with their constituents. Constituents and staff deserve respect and trust.
  4. Camaraderie through Good: Nonprofits often fall into the trap of “camaraderie of the trenches.” But employees want to rally around something exciting and come together with other employees to celebrate and build relationships based on positive progress and change.

The group was inspired by the stories of success from their peers and left ready to take realistic, actionable efforts to improve workplace culture in the short- and the long-term.

From Conversation to Action

We recently checked in with one of the participants who joined our On the Table dinner to see if our discussion about workforce issues had prompted any new ideas. Here’s what she had to say:

“I had a great time at that dinner and have thought of it several times recently. One of the most tangible takeaways from the dinner for me was the importance of staff bonding and retreat, [and] that getting away from the facility to enjoy each other’s company and engage in some fun activity is extremely important. At a small nonprofit that can be challenging due to finances, small staff, etc. [but] I came back from the dinner and advocated. Now we will all be going canoeing on the Brandywine and picnicking together in September!”

Share your ideas for keeping your nonprofit staff inspired, happy and engaged in your mission via Fairmount’s social media channels — @FairmountV on Twitter or @FairmountVenturesPHL on Facebook.

Adela Smith, Vice President & Partner, Adelarelies on social work values and a keen understanding of the challenges and opportunities nonprofit leaders face when planning for their future. She develops business, fundraising, and board development strategies for Fairmount’s clients that are at once ambitious and achievable. Adela earned her BA from the University of Pennsylvania and her MSW from the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy & Practice.

FV: What does a typical day look like for you at Fairmount Ventures?

AS: One of the reasons I love my job is that there’s no such thing as a “typical day.” I go in every morning with a general sense of what my day will look like—I have meetings and calls scheduled, I have a plan to write – that kind of thing—but I seldom know the exact shape it will take. Right now, I’m part of teams working with a local university, two organizations that provide services to older adults, an historic cemetery, an immigrant legal services nonprofit and a mental health education nonprofit. Each represents a unique set of challenges, opportunities and lines of business—fundraising, business planning and strategic planning—so I’m bobbing and weaving in all directions, all day, every day. What I can count on, though, is that each day has a mix of focused thinking and writing, and engaging with my colleagues to come up with the best strategies for our clients. I cannot overstate how much I turn to my teammates daily for energy and ideas.

FV: You have an extensive background in social work—in what ways do you apply what you learned at school and in past jobs to your work at Fairmount?

AS: I love this question. Professional degrees aren’t cheap and I decided early on in the pursuit of my MSW that I wasn’t cut out for the clinical route—I spent over a year on the job market explaining what a “macro” concentration was and wondering whether this degree would serve me. Anyway, there are more ways than I can count, but there are two applications of my social work background that I’m reminded of almost daily: interpersonal dynamics and systems thinking. Don, Fairmount’s President, told me early on that the business solutions we’re known for often aren’t the hardest; it’s understanding the people involved. Social work couldn’t have prepared me better for that. Social work also taught me that nothing—an organization or department within city government, a recipient of services, you or I—exists in a vacuum. We and the organizations we serve are products of the policies and environment that shape our behavior and beliefs about what’s possible.

FV: What’s one of the most memorable projects you’ve been involved in, and why?

AS: Tough question, but I’ll go with Shared Prosperity, the City’s strategy to reduce poverty. It was the biggest, hairiest project I’d worked on at that point. We engaged hundreds of residents, nonprofit providers, City officials and philanthropies to think about how we all work together to solve a problem that, frankly, only has so much to do with us and a whole lot to do with systemic racism and marginalization of poor people. That plan really energized the social work side of me. It was also my first collective impact project before “collective impact” was a thing. I really enjoyed learning about a theory and applying it. And I’ll never forget presenting the plan to Mayor Nutter. We were in a wood-paneled board room in City Hall and he was splitting his attention between his phone, laptop and a PDA-type device, with the printed draft in front of him. I remember thinking, “there’s no way he’s hearing what I’m saying or buying what we’re selling.” But at the end, he stood up, went into the adjacent bathroom, got a paper towel and squashed a thousand-legger before he sat down and said, “I think this is right, but let’s talk a little bit more about the evaluation piece. On page 32…” That interaction floored me. He remains the single best multi-tasker I’ve ever met in my life.

FV: You earned both your undergraduate and graduate degrees at the University of Pennsylvania, and you’ve worked in Philadelphia ever since. What are some of your favorite things about the city?

AS: In May, we closed the office for a day and our entire team went on a tour of some of our favorite projects. We visited the future site of the Discovery Center, Smith Memorial Playground, the Promise Neighborhood, The Woodlands and Bartram’s Garden. That tour encompassed my favorite things about the city: special places that represent our past and possibility, and special people working hard to learn from the past so they can help shape our future. Philadelphia has a proud reputation for being negative and down on itself. In my 20 years living here, I’ve taken pride in that more times than I can count. But I’ve been thinking lately about how we reframe that narrative. I think we’re actually optimists—we believe we can change things. We’re fighters. We’re a city that won’t settle. I love that.

Despite the daily barrage of head-spinning news coming out of Washington, let’s not lose sight of a few facts back here in Philadelphia:

  1. Many Philadelphians are angry about federal policies that hurt us, and are motivated to respond.
  2. We live in a wealthy region with a long history of people coming together to solve problems.
  3. We have effective nonprofits with intellectual and human capital in need of financial capital.

How do we move from problem to motivation to action? It may be a long distance run, but there is a path. Forget for a moment supply and demand; let’s demand a supply. For starters, recent research has established that people are ready to donate more money to causes they care about.

People are translating concerns about the country’s future into increased charitable giving.  

National research regarding the impact of previous presidential elections on philanthropic giving revealed minor and short-term fluctuations. The 2016 election, however, revealed marked changes that have persisted months after the election. The research evaluating the charitable giving plans of 1,000 Clinton and Trump voters following the inauguration revealed noteworthy insights. We’ve heard some of this before, but it’s worth considering what it means for the region’s nonprofit sector.

Giving Increase Graphic (cropped)

In short, the data reveals:

Capitalizing on this expanded motivation requires addressing both the demand and the supply sides of the equation.

Enhance demand: Nonprofits need to step up their asks. 

There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach.  At Fairmount Ventures, we invest a lot of time crafting strategies that consider the strengths and needs of each nonprofit. Call us if you want specific advice, but here are some elements to consider:

  1. Examine your organizational culture regarding investing in infrastructure and staff that support development and communications. In the for-profit sector, it is a given that an organization needs to invest money to generate money. In the nonprofit sector, it is often anathema to the culture. Take a look at yours.
  2. Be immediately responsive to inquiries from current and prospective donors. As obvious as this sounds, we are astounded by the number of nonprofits that tell us that they are too busy to respond to donors’ requests to help. Prioritize and figure out how to engage people that want to help you.
  3. Cut through the clutter. Understand if your current and, more importantly, future donor base is reading snail mail, email, Twitter, Instagram, et al., and start communicating with them where they live. Recall the statistics cited above: 18 to 34-year-olds plan to start being philanthropic, and people giving under $100 plan to double their giving. Catch this wave.
  4. Take a hard look at your board. Your board may have been the perfect mix of people for 1998 or 2008, but is it the right group of people for the future? You upgrade your infrastructure, your staff and your programs; when is the last time you evaluated how to maximize your board’s strategic value?
  5. If it’s worth having, it’s worth asking for. Words of wisdom from an old cabby driving us to the Milwaukee airport years ago. Get over any inhibition of asking for money: people want to support good causes that are doing things they cannot do themselves. Ask yourself if your own feelings of discomfort are more important than your organization’s mission and the people you serve.

Increase supply: Enlarge the proverbial pie.

Our April edition of reSources discussed the fact that the Philadelphia region is in the bottom 20% (41st out of 50 major cities) in philanthropic giving as a proportion of family adjusted gross income. Our suggestion that we organize the region to change this generated a significant number of “count me in” responses. Fairmount Ventures followed up with discussions with a few dozen nonprofit executives and leaders of local philanthropic institutions and received an overwhelmingly positive response. Along with expressions of interest to participate, we also heard how to tweak the approach to be more effective and avoid potential conflicts. We are ready to start to take action on this.

Let’s steal a page from the Paris Climate Agreement, i.e., rely on individual volunteer actions to achieve a collective good. Let’s:

This needs to be a collective activity that goes beyond any one of our organizations. We’d love to hear from others regarding your ideas and interest in participating.