Three thoughts from #Segal2019.
Quick observations after this year’s Segal Family Foundation annual meeting
Of all the conferences on the yearly changemaker event circuit, the Segal Family Foundation annual meeting has become a favorite stop for collaborating with like-minded donors and social ventures. This intimate – but growing! – gathering lives up to the bill by ‘bringing together the most innovative thinkers, ambitious doers, and progressive funders focusing on dramatic and positive change in Sub-Saharan Africa.’
After a long weekend of invigorating conversation and Mighty Ally leading two breakout sessions, we took away these three quick observations from #Segal2019.
There’s still a doer/donor power imbalance, but at least it’s out in the open.
Funders still call the shots and there’s no sugarcoating this reality. Making matters more difficult to swallow – most funders are from the global north and there’s very little representation from communities of color. But the dynamic has been clearly named and is now on the table for discussion. In some circles at least.
A number of sessions tackled the issue square on, like Flipping the Social Impact Pyramid, A Doer-Donor Role Reversal, and What Grantees Want. Skoll Foundation should be commended for openly verbalizing they’re not where they want to be on diversity – and recommending that we as a community can start by naming imbalance issues. Which is exactly what happened in a round-table dinner aptly titled The Age of Uncritiqued Philanthropy is Over, where a handful of staff from grantmaking orgs expressed difficulty getting foundation boards to agree on more equitable exchanges with grantees.
Segal itself continues to push for a more equitable community, ‘where development is steered by grassroots leaders and power is shifted into the hands of communities.’ Its African Visionary Fellowship is making headway in driving awareness and funding toward local leaders, with its fourth class (soon to be 70 African-led organizations total) entering the program next year.
And in another great example of naming it and sparking difficult conversations, a grantee rightfully questioned Mighty Ally about the title of our talk, Crafting Your Brand and Message So Funders Will Listen. Doesn’t this wording reinforce paternalism? Yes, it does, and we were thankful for the thought-provoking challenge. Hopefully one day, the title will be How Doers and Donors Position Their Organizations To Determine the Best Mutual Fit. But until then, we all must play within the broken system until we’ve fixed it together.
Many changemakers struggle to articulate a clear message.
With so many investors and grant seekers in one room, there should be partnerships sparked left and right. There’s obvious mutual interest and likely very aligned goals. But it was apparent that changemakers on both sides of the coin often come to the conversation without the ability to clearly introduce their organization. We heard doers and donors alike leading with various programs and services without a succinct mission statement or before setting up the problem. And others articulating their attempts at scale while skipping over ‘what’ they actually do. And we also heard investors admit their stated funding areas don’t always line up with the organizations they choose to support.
We sat across the lunch table from a funder speaking with two co-founders. Trying to gauge a fit, she asked them twice during the chat “Can you start by telling me what you do?” But after a few confusing attempts on their part, she ended up giving her card, asking them to review the foundation’s website and get in touch if they fall within her focus areas. A missed opportunity.
In a separate conversation we had with a respected funder, a program officer spoke of how she sometimes has to review an organization’s website after she gets a grant application to learn more about their work. “Then if I still can’t tell exactly what they do, I’ll send followup questions.” It’s stating the obvious, but a grant application and website – separately or in combination – should clearly communicate the basics of an organization’s reason, mission, and vision. A nonprofit has enough hurdles to surmount as it is – so knowing (and articulating!) these talking points like the back of their hand shouldn’t be a hindrance.
We spoke in our brand and messaging session about how there were more than 200 NGOs and social enterprises at the conference alone, with nearly 10 million in the world. And if you counted all the changemakers focusing on girls education, economic empowerment, training the trainer models, or community health (just to name a few crowded categories), you might nearly cover them all. So despite the altruism, competition still abounds. And collaboration – including grant matchmaking – is doubly difficult when the sea is chock full.
How do you break through the noise? Building a scalable social sector brand requires a deep look at ambition, approach, alignment, and amplification. So while it doesn’t happen overnight, you can at least start with a clear, compelling elevator pitch. Here’s a basic script we shared in our talk:
What problem are you trying to solve? (REASON)
What is your solution? (MISSION, UNIQUES)
And what is your payoff? (VISION, PROMISES)
Organizational health is gaining in awareness and importance.
When we started practicing and preaching org health a few years back, it was still a relatively obscure topic. Especially in the social sector. But it seems as if both doers and donors are slowly starting to realize its importance.
The topic of organizational health came up a few times during a session called Ask a Funder Anything. Grantees wanted to know what it meant to funders and what they could do about it. And we loved seeing fellow ecosystem partner Smarter Good – known mostly to be an outsourced fundraising agency – give a talk called Managing People and Teams where they flat out said, “talent is the key to impact, even more than funding or other inputs to social change.” So while we noticed there’s still not a shared definition of org health in the space, awareness is a good start.
We dug deep into the topic during the Mighty Ally session called Why Org Health Beats Innovation, Scale, and Funding, which largely mirrored our in-depth blog post from 2018. In this breakout, attendees heard from Segal grantee and our partner SHONA about how org health has become one of the three criteria they use to define a good, viable business.
And finally, in another fascinating conversation, we learned that funders like T&J Meyer Foundation actually use org health as a primary success indicator in the early years of a grant. They know that most early-stage companies won’t know or hit their impact metrics at first, so org health becomes a proxy for impact. Because if a social sector org has good leadership, the right people, and strong operations, they’ll have a much better chance of achieving the impact they seek.
Thanks to the Segal team for having us speak. And to the on-the-ground NGOs and social enterprises in the community for doing such important work. We’re inspired by you.
Follow more of the #Segal2019 conversation on Twitter. And see you next year.