By Carolyn Berkowitz

I love occasions when we put the extension leaf in our dining room table.  Mind you, I don’t love schlepping the heavy oak slab from the hall closet or trying to fit it into the slots in the table, but do I love the anticipation of expanding my regular inner circle. I love welcoming new people, ideas, and perspectives to our conversation that will fill our dining room with new ways of thinking, thinking that will undoubtedly expand our points of view.

Today, Mission Partners put an “extension leaf” in our table to help expand our point of view by launching our Equity Advisory Board. Designed to build and share equitable practices within our own firm and on behalf of our clients, the Mission Partners’ Equity Advisory Board includes a set of seven deeply experienced leaders who are answering questions of equity in the practice of their organizational life every day, and who bring critical perspectives and voices to our table.  These new voices help us to apply a lens of diversity, equity and inclusion to our daily work – a benefit that our clients and employees will feel directly.

Here’s why we felt the urgency to create and closely engage with an Equity Advisory Board, and why you may want to think about it too:

Our deep desire to help our clients advance equity: We live in a deeply divided world, in which values including cultural competence and respect are mistaken for being “politically correct.” Pew Research Center projects the disappearance of any racial or ethnic majority in the U.S. by 2055. Historically subjected to blatant discrimination, the growing percentage of individuals representing diverse populations in America simply must be supported with policies, programs and practices across all dimensions of life in order for our nation to achieve its ideals and to prosper economically and socially.

As the aging White population begins to decline, new talent and brain-power is arising in communities across our nation, bringing multi-cultural viewpoints, solutions, and growth mindsets to our nation’s table. As William Frey, Senior Fellow from the Brookings Institution states, “the sheer size of the minority population is arriving just in time…assuming positions of responsibility, exerting more political clout, exercising their strength as consumers, and demonstrating their value in the labor force.” We must all challenge ourselves to seek out the leadership of this brain-trust to build our future.

By doing their part to advance equity in housing, education, healthcare, jobs, and civic participation, our clients are at the forefront of ensuring that our nation prospers. At Mission Partners, we believe that our Equity Advisory Board will help us better serve our clients by adding more value and thoughtful insight around to the challenges and opportunities that they face in advancing their missions, all while maintaining the lens of equity and inclusion to create impactful and measurable change to policy and practice.

Our belief that homogeneity is a hindrance to progress: Without the full breadth of perspective, new ideas and innovative solutions to community impact are simply not possible.

When homogeneous leaders – even well-meaning ones – create solutions for our organizations and society, they are bound to fail, or at best, to be useful only to small segments of the population. Many of us have heard the story of “racist bathroom sinks” – automated soap dispensers that do not recognize darker skin tones because their optic sensors were built only to accommodate the level of light present in pale skin tones. This is a prime example of the dangers of homogeneous thinking.

More and more research points to the improvement of every dimension of organizational performance when Boards and leadership teams are diverse and inclusive. One of my favorite studies on this phenomenon focuses on corporate strengths beyond financial performance. In a 2014 study conducted at Utah State University, researchers found that when a White CEO operates with a diverse board, both corporate governance and product innovation are significantly strengthened.

At Mission Partners, we recognize that to innovate in our business and on behalf of our clients, we simply must incorporate a breadth of perspectives, experiences, and skills to our work that are representative of the communities that we and our clients serve. We are excited to welcome seven stellar leaders to our expanded table today, because together, we will solve problems, learn from one another’s experiences, and become better stewards of the missions we seek to advance.

by Carrie Fox

“Be steady and well-ordered in your life so that you can be fierce and original in your work.”

French novelist and author of Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert wrote this line[1] in an 1825 correspondence to Gertrude Tennant. Flaubert was known for his style and aesthetics—and his attention to the fine detail shows up often in his life’s work.

This notion of orderly focus has been on my mind in recent weeks as we’ve been guiding several clients through a range of organizational transitions. In each project I’m reminded that focus is hard for many organizations to achieve—especially when everything feels to be changing around them.

Whether shifting directions in a strategic plan, or revisiting the words used to define your organization’s core beliefs, no greatness can come from a shaky or unorderly process. But with a little muscle memory, focusing your organization’s words, actions, and future can be much more manageable.

So, this week’s blog is devoted to some of my favorite tips for keeping order, even in times of transition:

  • On focusing your words: The words we use to define our mission, vision and everyday value have a major impact in getting someone to understand what we’re saying. Spend less time talking around an issue or peppering your language with too much technical-speak and force yourself to get to the heart of what really matters. Then, ask a handful of people one step removed from your daily work how they would describe your product, service, or issue. You’ll likely find those answers contain some of the most authentic elements of your mission: the kinds of words that have been right in front of you, but got buried in complexity somewhere along the way. Also, pay attention to the vehicles you’re using to distribute your messages. By simplifying or reducing the number of communications tools you’re using, you can focus more intently on how well you’re using them and your messages will have a better chance of sticking.
  • On focusing your actions:  If you’re in the camp of always wondering “Why are we doing this?” and the answer isn’t easily produced, it’s probably time for a good assessment of your organizational priorities.  Are organizational goals clear, and does each team have sub-goals and objectives that line up with the big picture?  Do individuals, especially in more junior positions, understand how their daily activities connect back to the bigger picture? If you—or they— can’t answer those questions, your organization is likely losing a lot of time and efficiency. Focus first on ensuring that the entire team understands this year’s priorities (before you dive right into this week’s priorities) and you’ll see your organizational focus skyrocket.
  • On focusing on the future: The assumption most of us make is that if we have well-ordered and organized days, we’re likely to be productive. But we’ve found that in routine, the power of originality can be lost in the mundane.  Try introducing short, unexpected and creative activities into your work week that intentionally change the routine—a lunchtime walk through a new part of town, a mid-day drawing or coloring session, an afternoon exercise class— anything that can clear your mind and give you a fresh perspective on the day’s work.  We’ve found that it works every time to restore a sense of focus that translates well into fresh thinking.

Achieving the kind of steadiness that Flaubert referenced is not easy, but creating a path to fierce originality is well worth it. While strategic direction will likely be guided from the top, everyone can play a role in advancing an organization’s future.  And with a renewed sense of focus, you’ll feel confident knowing that each task you take on today is getting you closer to that ultimate goal.

[1] Other translations of Flaubert’s quote include: “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”

By Carrie Fox

Several years ago, a young employee was having a hard time concentrating at work, and while it was clear she was struggling to connect with her peers and meet certain deadlines, she was also noticeably uncomfortable sharing details of her struggle.

Rather than scold her for missing deadlines (which was my first inclination), I asked her to join me for a walk. We found a little table at an outdoor café and talked, about seemingly inconsequential matters first, before she shared that her grandmother was ill, and that she was having a difficult time thinking about anything other than how she was going to get back home to visit with her. She was a relatively new employee, and hadn’t yet worked up the vacation time to step away.

As she talked, I no longer saw her as a new employee causing issues among the team, but a young person, who was feeling overwhelmed by the illness of someone very special to her. I suggested she take the rest of the week off, to be with her family, with the knowledge that that we would manage her assignments for the remainder of the week.

Looking back, it was such a small gesture, but it deeply and positively changed our relationship, and her future performance. It was also my light bulb moment to the power of listening and learning from my employees, and the importance of leading with empathy in the workplace.  As  Theodore Roosevelt said, “Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Empathy is defined many ways, but I understand it as the ability to see the world through another’s eyes. The importance of empathy has long been understood among educators, parents, and physicians, but only recently has it emerged among the shortlist of required skills for successful CEOs: an essential tool to the success of business, with direct correlation to the growth, productivity, and earnings per employee.

Why Empathy Matters

When you allow yourself to see situations from another’s perspective, you create an environment for employees and peers to feel safe with failures, or to ask for support when challenges arise. When our leaders are empathetic—and by extension, kind— we become more loyal to them, and therefore work harder to do right by them. And, in this especially divisive time, how can we be anything but kind?

Yet, according to the recent Workplace Empathy Monitor, while sixty percent of employers believe their organizations are empathetic, just 24 percent of employees agree. Many times, leaders think they are being empathetic. They think they are creating space for an understanding environment. But they don’t take the time to really listen and learn from their employees.

How Empathic Are You? Take the Quiz!

The good news is there are some very simple strategies to build empathetic leadership into your day-to-day activities. (Note: the following list is adapted from the teachings of Roman Krznaric and the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkley.)

  1. Speak from Experience vs. Giving Advice. Frederique Irwin, the brilliant mind behind Her Corner, asks members in her Accelerator programs to abide by the Gestalt Language Protocol, in which individuals speak from experience rather than give advice. For instance, saying, “Here’s what worked for me…” is far more effective and empathic than saying “Here’s what you should do…” or “Here’s what I would do…”
  2. Listen vs. Analyze. The person with whom you’re speaking likely isn’t expecting (or wanting) you to have the answer, nor do they want to be immediately judged or evaluated on the information they are sharing. Rather than jumping to a statement like “I think you’re taking this the wrong way…” or “You’re taking this too seriously…,” just listen, and avoid the urge to have “the right answer.”
  3. Focus on Understanding vs. Defending. If an employee or peer has difficult information to share with you, give them the time and space to share, without immediately jumping to your own defense. It is far more effective to let someone explain what is bothering them, and then to calmly enter into conversation, without rushing to give your side of the story—even if you do believe you are in the right.
  4. Give the Person Speaking Your Full Attention. The person in front of you is your sole focus and multitasking, while a great skill, is not appropriate when working empathically. Instead, practice active listening. Tune into what your conversation partner is saying without interruption. Pay careful attention to their body language and facial expressions and periodically repeating back to them what you think they’re trying to say, to make sure you understand them accurately. The real test of active listening: next time you’re in conversation, focus on the color of your conversation partner’s eyes. Tune in to them fully, and you’ll likely find that you will hear them better than you have in the past.
  5. Look for Commonalities. Approach your day knowing that you have at least one thing in common with every single person with whom you interact—on the train, in the coffee shop, and certainly at work. When interacting with people who, at first glance, seem to be different from you, look for sources of commonality and shared experience. Maybe you’re both fans of the same sports team or you both know what it’s like to lose a loved one. Seeing your Shared Identity can help you overcome fear and distrust and promote empathy and cooperation.
  6. Share in Other People’s Joy. Empathy is not just about commiserating; it can also be experienced in response to positive emotions such as happiness and pride. If you hear someone else sharing good news or celebrating a special moment at work, step away from your computer, and express your enthusiasm for their good news. Moments like this take mere seconds, but they are immensely important for the well-being of a relationship.

 

The short summary to all of this is: Life is hard, and there will always be more to people’s stories than they let on. Start every day from a place of compassion, and an understanding that it’s OK to not know all the answers. And, in taking the time to understand others, they’ll likely take time to understand you better, too.

 

For more empathy tips, check out the best research-based empathy practices, and read Roman Krznaric’s “Six Habits of Highly Empathic People.”

By Carrie Fox

Think about the last request you made of someone that went unanswered. Maybe it was to a colleague, a potential funder, or a journalist.

Why do you think they didn’t respond?

Maybe the request came in at a bad time. Maybe it was communicated on the wrong platform, buried in an inbox, left on a voicemail that’s rarely checked, or lost in LinkedIn messaging. Or, maybe the message itself was just plain off. Not relevant. Not interesting. Not understood.

According to a recent survey of nonprofit communicators, more than 7 out of 10 nonprofits describe their messaging as feeling “off target,” but those same communicators are at a loss for how to adjust their messages for increased “stickiness.”

The good news is that those who are getting regular (and positive) responses from their requests all have three little things in common with their messaging: they are real, they’re relatable, and they’re repeatable.  Great communicators can articulate their requests in such a way that others embrace them freely and actually feel compelled to provide support.

So, where do most communicators go wrong? They bury their own headlines. They bury their why – the reason that this message matters to the reader, and the reason it matters now.  Instead of articulating that ask right up front, they bury it in paragraph after paragraph of conversation and copy, rather than simply inverting that conversation and leading with their most important point. By the time the ask is made, the reader is almost always long gone.

What we’ve learned in the last several years of watching how people communicate is that there are three kinds of messages that spur action. And when used in tandem, the power of this message trifecta truly comes to life:

1. Make it Real

If you want someone to do something for you, you’ve got to give it to them straight. That means in plain language. Put the technical speak aside, and speak to your audience as you would speak to a friend. Some individuals believe that the more complex their message, the more impressive. But just the opposite is true. The simpler you can make your messages, the more compelling it will be.

2. Make it Relevant

After 20 years of pitching stories to the media, I’ve gotten pretty used to hearing, “but tell me why THIS story matters.”  What’s different about this ask, and why should your audience care? Relevant messages are those that people hold on to; they’re the kind of messages that tap into people’s heads and hearts simultaneously. Relevance is also a vital door opener to any ask, so be sure to show that you’re in sync with what’s happening in the world of your audience, and that you understand where you fit in to their agenda. Do this well, and you’ll find your audience turning into your best advocates and allies.

3. Make it Repeatable

Feed your audience a good story that proves why they should care. Stories help people who are less familiar with your work understand its impact, but they also provide a ready-made vehicle to get others talking. Tell a story that can help to bring the importance of your ask to life, and you’re much more likely to make someone remember it and then repeat it to someone else.

So, to get your next big ask to stick, ask yourself the following before you hit send:

  • Is it real? Are my words simple and understandable?
  • Is it relevant? Have I made it clear why I’m asking now, and what kind of impact this support could make?
  • Is it repeatable? Have I done a good enough job proving myself? Have I included a story or anecdote that reinforces my point in a compelling way?

Nail this messaging trifecta and know that your chances of a positive reply are surely improved.

Looking for more communications tips? Sign up here to receive our next monthly newsletter where I’ll share the power of communicating with empathy—and the top ten ways you can do it better at work and in life.

strategic-planning

By Carrie Fox

It’s strategic planning season.

This month, tens of thousands of organizations will start their strategic planning process for the year(s) to come.  And according to Inc. Magazine, more than 50% of those organizations will find the entire process futile. (Ouch.)

Some of the questions that lead to this strategy-on-a-shelf syndrome: “We built a plan that was too big for us”, “We didn’t take into account the true capacity of our team” or “We didn’t spend enough time thinking about why we do this work or for whom we’re doing it.”  

Here at Mission Partners, we’re currently counseling a number of organizations through the process, all from their own unique positions. There are some organizations planning for the launch of new products,  some experiencing leadership transitions, and others working to redefining who they are, in order to better get at how they deliver on their promise. The request in all cases is nearly identical: “Help us get from here to there.”

As we guide each organization through the strategic planning process over the coming months, making sure they ultimately have a strategy that sticks (our promise), we’ll ask a whole series of probing questions, some of which we share here in case you’re entering the season of strategic planning, too:

  • What Are We Solving For? Can you answer this one in a way that would compel your customers to act?  Don’t shortchange the process of understanding and articulating why your organization matters, and what it’s working to achieve. As much as you think someone will support your cause, join your group, or sign up for your new course because you’ve got a great idea, you must be prepared with proof that your idea is a real and relevant one. (And that means wrestling with how you’re measuring your impact on the issue too.)
  • What Do We Stand For? Surprisingly, most people have a much easier time answering “what are you against?” even though the answer to the first question is at the heart of your organization’s purpose and values. Once the answer is identified, and consensus among the team is reached, other business decisions start to fall more naturally into place.
  • Who’s Our Most Important Customer? One of Peter Drucker’s signature questions. As Drucker saw it, you’ve got primary customers (those whose life is changed because of your work) and secondary customers (those who must be satisfied for your organization to achieve results.) If you want your plan to stick, take the time to understand your customer base, and build a plan from their point of view. And never, never underestimate the importance of engaging your end user in the planning process before you even think about plotting strategy.
  • Where Do Others See Our Value? Do you know what your primary customer would say if you asked them to define your value? Strategic planning can’t happen in a vacuum, regardless of how well you think you know answers to the questions above. Talk with enough people at least one step removed from your organization to find out how they describe your organization and its impact, and to uncover possible weaknesses or threats in your model. You’ll likely find that their answers contain some of the most crisp and compelling elements of your work, in a way that only an outside perspective can see.

As my great friend Cristin Dorgelo likes to say, “if you don’t have a target, you’ll miss it every time.”  Strategic planning requires a fierce commitment to focus, and a collective understanding and commitment to the end goal.  Start there–at the end of the process–and  figuring out where you go from here will become much easier.

Looking for help with your strategic planning process?  Email me at carrie@mission.partners to learn more about our strategic planning and facilitation services.

Year in Review

By Carrie Fox

This holiday season, as we celebrate the first anniversary of Mission Partners, we are thankful for you and for your partnership in moving missions forward for the benefit of our communities, our nation, and our world.

2017 was as promising as it was challenging. As our nation grappled with issues of access and opportunity, our work was bound together by a common theme: a commitment to providing an equitable future for all. To that end, here’s our year in review:

  • We developed bold new strategic plans for nonprofits, foundations and socially responsible businesses who committed to increase their impact.
  • We built fresh, new narratives that lead with strength and simplicity—and are based on insights gleaned through research—about workforce development, higher education, healthcare, housing, philanthropy, and public media.
  • We helped to mobilize a DC community for collective impact, in order to preserve its neighborhood and provide opportunity for all residents to remain and thrive, even under the immense pressures of gentrification.
  • We led and facilitated Board meetings and community convenings—across the country and across sectors—that challenged long-held ways of working, and identified new solutions.
  • We hosted and facilitated salon dinners, community events, and working groups to drive changes in our systems, including philanthropy and the workplace.
  • We designed creative campaigns that presented the impact of established organizations in new ways, driving increased community impact and engagement.
  • We recommitted ourselves to equity, inclusion, and identity in our practice with clients and in our own learning by participating in Equity, Diversity, Inclusion Training with CommonHealth ACTION, and doubled down on our commitment by partnering with CommonHealth ACTION to bring this life-changing experience to our network. As a direct result of the training, Mission Partners will launch an Equity Advisory Board in 2018. We look forward to sharing more details in the new year.

Through it all, we’ve realized that the work we’re doing at Mission Partners has never felt more fulfilling, or more urgent.

As a woman-owned and women-led organization, our mission is to advance issues and causes that result in an equitable future for all. And, as we reflect on this first year at Mission Partners and look forward to where we’re going, we realize that to truly advance issues of equity, we must address and learn from our roots, and then intentionally change behavior. It’s how we invest in today, as organizational leaders, that can affect our ability to create a more equitable future.

For this reason, we will soon launch the Mission Forward Leaders Exchange, a new series of cohort-based learning groups that will drive purpose-driven leaders like you through a year of skills-building, reflection, critical thinking, and “visioneering” for the future. Each exchange will welcome up to 12 people per cohort to convene on critical topics that are reflective of our shared responsibilities as leaders, and will be facilitated by my partner, Carolyn Berkowitz, and me. More details will follow in January, but if you are interested in learning more, please email me at carrie@mission.partners for advance access to registration materials.

As you reflect on your own experiences in 2017, and recommit to being an agent of change in the coming year, we hope you’ll consider joining us in 2018 to transform your good intentions into great impact.

By Carrie Fox

Charnice Milton was a young community reporter working for the Capital Community News in Washington, DC. On May 27, 2015, she was on her way home from covering a story in D.C.’s Ward 8, when she was killed at her bus stop by a random drive-by shooter. Her case remains unsolved.

Charnice’s death hit me hard. I had met her for the first time just weeks prior, when she and I had been working on a story together about new development coming to Ward 8.  In that first phone call, it was impossible not to be inspired by her commitment to overcome challenges and cover the good stories of Ward 8, despite the violence that permeated her local news.

And then she was gone.

I think about Charnice often.  I think of her parents, her neighborhood, and of the world of good she brought to her profession. Motivated by what happened to Charnice, and inspired by her life’s passion, my husband Brian and decided that the “tugging feeling at our hearts” was too important to let go.  So, in late 2015, we seeded and launched the World of Good Fund, housed at the Greater Washington Community Foundation. We have made a family commitment to personally grow the fund, while inviting and allowing others to contribute to it as they see fit. It is also our family’s main philanthropic vehicle through which we invest back into our community, while serving as a tool to engage our daughters in conversations of philanthropy, equity and community.

Brian and I believe that one doesn’t have to change the world to do a world of good and that sometimes small, focused projects can have long-lasting positive effect. So while sometimes it might feel as if there’s not nearly enough good in this world, we know that good is all around us, if we’re open to it.

If you share our belief, we’d welcome your involvement in the World of Good Fund. This holiday season, we’re on a mission to elevate and amplify stories of good.  And we are willing to put some dollars down to make it happen. This month, for every person who shares their #holidaymission on Twitter, Mission Partners will put a dollar into the World of Good Fund, up to $1,000.  Help us share and spread the good this year. A little bit of that could go a long way.

When we moved into our office space at 7201 Wisconsin Avenue, the very first thing I did was have a quote painted on the wall right outside of my office:

“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”

I have read those words, from Nelson Mandela, nearly every weekday morning since 2014, just as I step into my office to start the work day. It’s my constant and intentional reminder of the power and influence that good communication can have, especially when the pace of life can make real connections feel hard to come by or—in the case of this year—when the state of our national discourse feels too much to bear. But there’s something in those words that always brings me back to what I firmly believe, and to why I do the work that I do.

I believe that communications can change the world. I believe that when people connect with one another—often across whatever divides us—real, positive and lasting change happens. Whether it is advancing a critical piece of legislation, inspiring a movement, educating young students, or building bridges between cultural divides, positive change happens through communication.

But belief, while an important ingredient, is only half of the equation. One most act on those beliefs in order to realize their magnitude, which reminds me of another guiding quote, this one from Mahatma Gandhi:

“Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.”

As I prepare to enter my 14th year in business, and our first anniversary under the new umbrella of Mission Partners, I can honestly say that entering every day with my core belief top of mind has allowed us as a company to lead with purpose. And leading with purpose has allowed us to build a company beyond belief:  a company that drives every decision with heart and head—a company that can say ‘what we do, for the good of others,” without even a second of pause. A company that goes further to get at the heart of our work, and sticks with that work until big breakthroughs are realized, because our heart’s in it too.

In this season of gratitude, I simply pause to give thanks for the people who drive me, the organizations that inspire me, and the daily routine that has become my “work.” It is, truly, beyond belief.

In January, Leadership Montgomery, a small but influential nonprofit leadership center in Maryland, unveiled its new strategic plan, complete with a new mission, vision, and way of talking about the organization’s community impact.

This shift followed a time of deep reflection for the organization. For nearly 30 years, Leadership Montgomery had brought together private, public, and nonprofit professionals through leadership trainings and service activities that broaden perspectives and build connections for community improvement. But with a new CEO at the helm, it was time for a step back to move forward—to reframe tired language and re-examine the organization’s role and relevance within the community.

Leadership Montgomery timed the unveiling of its new strategic plan so that it coincided with the announcement of a major expansion of its programming—via the addition of another small but influential nonprofit called the Corporate Volunteer Council of Montgomery County (CVC). CVC trains businesses on how to build effective volunteer and charitable programs, and it too had been going through a time of reflection; its board wondered how it would or could scale CVC’s model to more effectively interlace with the region’s business and community leaders.

“The needs of our county have evolved,” said Leadership Montgomery’s new CEO during the public announcement. “As I’ve listened to what our members, our graduates, and our partners desire in leadership programming, I’ve realized without hesitation that with CVC, we can deliver more for those whom we support, and we can pull our community closer together in the process.”

The pairing of the organizations was widely commended, with most people echoing one simple line: This just makes sense. Others, however, met the news with skepticism: Why would two charities come together unless one was weak and needed saving? The perception among this group seemed to be that going it alone was the true measure of strength—that one of these two organizations must not be measuring up when it came to the number of people supported, organizations improved, or service activities completed. It didn’t occur to them that, through partnership, the strong could become even stronger.

Since its founding, Leadership Montgomery has graduated more than 2,000 leaders, 955 of whom now hold board seats in County-based businesses; supported 864 local nonprofits with 25,000 hours of volunteer service; and trained 476 high school and other emerging leaders. The CVC was recently named Corporate Volunteer Council of the Year by Points of Light for its outstanding commitment to corporate and community engagement. Both were independently strong organizations. However, to spur more significant, mission-moving change, Leadership Montgomery realized it needed to think very differently about its delivery mechanism. The answer wasn’t more programming, more sponsorship opportunities, or even more graduates. Rather, it was a realization that through calculated risk and collaboration with a complementary nonprofit, its value could skyrocket.

The calculated risk to bring the programming of CVC into Leadership Montgomery’s service model was not only a smart business decision with short- and long-term payoff, but also a great example of two organizations coming together from a place of strength, to support their respective communities in new ways.

According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics, there are nearly 1.6 million active nonprofit organizations in the United States, many delivering the same or similar services. These organizations put a lot of time and effort into reviewing and refining their missions, but they often spend far less time thinking about how in-sector collaboration can move their own missions forward.

Rather than trying to tackle every challenge or advance every idea with the same team of executives and board members, Leadership Montgomery considered how the experience—and the identified solutions—might change if the perspective and people at its table changed. Its intentional collaboration with CVC has already resulted in several short-term business wins with long-term payoff; donors that had fallen inactive found new value in the expanded set of offerings.

So what made the Leadership Montgomery collaboration take hold, and what can other nonprofits learn from it? Here are three takeaways to consider:

  1. Create an agenda, but focus on the action. Leadership Montgomery’s CEO sought input from a wide cross-section of individuals and groups in the creation of the strategic plan, and then found a compelling way to bring it to life immediately through a thoughtfully conceived expansion of services.
  2. The message matters. Leadership Montgomery anticipated questions about organizational weakness and stayed one step ahead by focusing on the value this partnership would bring to the region. It took the time to prepare and then tell the story of why the collaboration made sense for both the organizations and the communities they support.
  3. Find a buddy who shares your vision. Leadership Montgomery and CVC had a clear, shared sense of a bigger, bolder vision. The organizations took the necessary time to assess the work that they were trying to do in the community and determined that deeper integration would result in greater impact.

This year, tens of thousands of nonprofits will explore new and better ways to deliver on their missions. As they do, Leadership Montgomery’s pivot towards partnership can serve as an important reminder that our greatest strength is rarely revealed by itself. With a collaborative spirit and a willingness to question the expected, our best is yet to be.

This article originally appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

20 years ago last week, five living Presidents and Nancy Reagan were gathered together in Philadelphia at an event called the President’s Summit for America’s Future, hosted by General Colin Powell, to make a promise to our children and youth. Leaders from all sectors and all 50 states, along with young people from hundreds of communities, committed to one another and the nation that together they would provide all youth access to the critical success factors that they needed to thrive: a life filled with caring adults; safe spaces to learn, play, and grow; health and wellness for the best start in life; skills for meaningful and prosperous employment; and opportunities to share their gifts with others through service. They called these the “Five Promises,” and advancing them became the rallying cry for the America’s Promise Alliance.

I had a special seat at that Summit, even though I rarely had the chance to sit down while I was there. As a staff member of America’s Promise, I managed the logistics and much of the programming for the event. One of my fondest memories is of calling the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau to book the venue: “Hello, I’ll be bringing all the living Presidents to town for a Summit next year, and I’d like to reserve every hotel room in the city for 4 days.” There was silence on the other end of the line…then finally, “Who are you?  Where are you calling from? Presidents of what?”

That was the start to a career defining experience for me, and it has since shaped every role in my professional life.

Last week, America’s Promise celebrated its 20th anniversary in New York City, an event that inspired us all to #Recommit2Kids. Led again by Colin and Alma Powell, the event featured President Clinton and a line-up of incredible speakers, young people, and performers who passionately made the case once again that we must help guide all of our nation’s children to a life of opportunity, fulfillment, prosperity, and contribution. This time I was a guest, and yes, I was glued to my seat the entire time.

It was heartening to see that America’s Promise has maintained its relevance for a new generation of young people, and even more gratifying to see how much has been accomplished since 1997. And yet, I found myself impatient and disappointed that we haven’t yet solved so many of the root problems that continue to plague or nation’s youth – especially those living in financial, social, or spiritual poverty.

We know, in the quiet of conscience, that our children deserve better.

They deserve a life that rewards their dreams, a life of opportunity, unburdened by injustice. Equal opportunity is the defining promise of our country. It is a commitment that should unite right and left, rural and urban, rich and poor. Without equality of opportunity, economic differences harden through generations in a way that is inconsistent with our nation’s ideals.” Colin and Alma Powell

20 years later, I am still optimistic that we can expedite our progress because of the evolution of the conversation since 1997. Having participated in both events, it was evident to me that we’ve grown as a people to be more accepting, more inventive, and more precise. We’ve grown as a culture where inclusivity and equity are the expectations, and exclusion and inequity are called out for what they are. The quality of the dialogue is so much richer today than it was a generation ago in Philadelphia.

Consider these themes that resonated throughout the event:

  • Identity: Young people celebrated who they are, not what they’ve done. The amazing and talented IMPACT Rep Theater and City Kids loudly and proudly shared their truths with us in performance of song, dance, and poetry. They expressed their authentic identities in ways that wasn’t safe for them to do 20 years ago, and we, as adults in the audience, embraced them with love.

“It shouldn’t require heroism to be a child.” Tiffany Yu

  • Data: Our embrace of data in the past 20 years has shed light on problems and the solutions that can be scaled for more effective intervention. For example, Nadine Burke Harris from the Center for Youth Wellness shared research on the biological consequences of the toxic stress that is caused by childhood adversity, including increased heart disease, depression, and other health risks for children that can carry into their adult years. Her solution is to ensure that educators and pediatricians know how to screen for and intervene in adverse childhood experiences, before they become biological aftermaths.
  • Equity: Nearly every speaker spoke to the need for universal equity for our children and youth. Not just equality; equity. Not just diversity; inclusion. And not about the bad choices that kids make, but about our failure as a society to provide all kids with sanctuary so they can survive and thrive. In 1997 we talked about equality, diversity, and dare I say, the blaming of parents. We know better now, and even though we have miles to go, I was inspired by the conversation and I believe that working together, we can achieve the equity that all kids deserve.

“In order to help children at risk, we have to be able to do things that are uncomfortable.” Bryan Stevenson

  •  Reach: There were about 800 people in the room at the Marriott Marquis this week, but there were well over 1 million people following the live stream and social media conversation. As Alma Powell pointed out, this tremendous increase in reach is something that was not available to us in 1997. And since the event, the retweets and reposts have exponentially exposed people to the issues facing children and youth.

 

There is so much to be done for our kids and for our nation. We must never rest at the sight of injustice and inequity. While there are no excuses for failing to be true to the ideals we hold so dear, I see progress in the quality of the conversation and the solutions we’re advancing today. I have tremendous hope in the promise for America, and I am #Recommitted2Kids.