“Even with a highly successful set of early grantees like Teach for America and Freelancers Union, it was clear we needed to come together to address social issues at the scale they exist.”
Our grantee-partners, funders, and others urged us to convene the best thinkers from every sector for an open dialogue about the challenge of scale in social problem solving. A few months later in the dead of winter in 2005, 75 people came together at Mohonk Mountain House in upstate New York to deepen our collective understanding of the barriers to growth and generate ideas for how we could release the potential of social entrepreneurs writ large to dramatically grow their impact.
The energy and excitement of the resulting relationships, ideas, and action agenda led us to a strong conclusion: the Gathering needed to become an annual offering to our grantee-partners and funders, as well as the larger field.
For the first few years, our focus at the Gathering was on getting smarter about scale and impact. The initial dialogue generated a sprawling action agenda with three clear central imperatives: increase access to capacity building capital; increase access to, and improve practices with, human capital; and, remarkably, open up government to partnership with social entrepreneurs.
The idea that social entrepreneurs should (or even could) deeply engage in policy advocacy, as a way to direct public resources towards higher impact approaches and build public will behind social innovations, was not widely endorsed in the mid-2000s. In fact, many of the social entrepreneurs in the New Profit network started their organizations precisely because they believed government was no longer the place to drive social change. Still, thanks to an encouraging yet admonishing talk with Presidential advisor David Gergen at the first Gathering, our community was forced to reckon with the fact that we were putting barriers in the way of our own intended impact if we avoided shaping the way public dollars flowed, considering the degree to which they dwarf all other resources. And the only way to do that would be to mobilize and support social entrepreneurs to directly engage in public policy advocacy.
Gergen’s call to action, especially in the context of the open 2008 presidential election, led New Profit to create a nonpartisan policy action center and coalition to mobilize social entrepreneurs for policy, which we named America Forward. To date, America Forward and its 70+ coalition members have leveraged $1.7 billion in federal funding for innovative, evidence-based programs across the country, by engaging with policy makers on early learning, K-12 education, workforce development, and social innovation broadly speaking.
David Gergen’s challenge at the Gathering led to the creation of American Forward, which has driven $1.7 billion in federal funding towards social innovation.
We’ve come to think of the Gathering as a place where the “adjacent possible” becomes visible and expands. In the words of author Steven Johnson (a two-time Gathering speaker):
“ The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edges of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself… [it] captures both the limits and the creative potential of change and innovation…It’s the ever-present set of opportunities at the boundaries of our reach…[And] the strange and beautiful truth about the adjacent possible is that its boundaries grow as you explore them. Each new combination opens up the possibility of other new combinations. ”
Over the years, the Gathering has been a wellspring of idea generation and collaboration around “new combinations” of many kinds, including:
CRIMINAL JUSTICE REFORM AND ITS CROSS-CUTTING RELEVANCE
Speakers like The Wire creator David Simon, producer and criminal justice reform advocate Scott Budnick, and Equal Justice Initiative Founder and Executive Director Bryan Stevenson, as well as dialogue with previously incarcerated young people, jolted many in our community with the enormous impact of the incarceration cycle. Partially in response, we launched our Unlocked Futures to support entrepreneurs directly impacted by the criminal justice system.
ADVANCES IN NEUROSCIENCE AND IMPLICATIONS FOR SOCIAL PROBLEM SOLVING
By connecting the Gathering community to new and fast moving research on how the brain learns through dialogue with neuroscientist and author V.S. Ramachandran, Johns Hopkins scientist Sheila Walker, Turnaround for Children founder Pam Cantor, and others, we helped further understanding and uptake of powerful scientific insight and evidence. This work led directly to the launch of our Reimagine Learning Fund, which supports communities and schools to create learning environments that unleash creativity and potential in all students, especially the most vulnerable.
THE CRITICAL NEED FOR MORE DIVERSITY, EQUITY, AND INCLUSION IN SOCIAL PROBLEM SOLVING
A set of conversations over many years with the likes of Management Leadership for Tomorrow founder and CEO John Rice, Harvard researcher Mahzarin Banaji, Equal Justice Initiative Founder and Executive Director Bryan Stevenson, then-Newark Mayor and now U.S. Senator Cory Booker, former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, Black Lives Matter leader and Teach For America regional director Brittany Packnett, Beyond12 Founder Alex Bernadotte, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative President, Education Jim Shelton, and others, allowed Gathering participants to grapple with important insights:
- Our brains are hardwired for bias (of many types), and racism, classism, and other forms of bias are at play inside social entrepreneurship, philanthropy, and the broader nonprofit sector, as as is the case in other sectors.
- Similar to the tech sector, a myth of meritocracy exists in our sector, influencing who is perceived as a “fundable” leader. Often, a lack of talent is pointed to as the cause of the fact that relatively little capital flows to women, people of color, and other leaders from underrepresented communities. We reject that there is a lack of diverse talent. We believe that diverse talent is not seen or supported as a result of bias, which constrains which leaders and ideas are seen has high potential, and even how problems and solutions are defined in the first place.
As a result, we’ve embraced the opportunity to challenge racism and other forms of bias, and see doing so as inextricably linked to the ability to achieve our collective aspirations for impact. Beyond profound shifts in New Profit’s strategy and team, including the launch of our Catalyze Investments, we continue to pursue these themes at the Gathering.
As a result, we’ve embraced the opportunity to challenge racism and other forms of bias, and see doing so as inextricably linked to the ability to achieve our collective aspirations for impact. Beyond profound shifts in New Profit’s strategy and team, including the launch of our three-pronged Accelerator program, we continue to pursue these themes at the Gathering.
LOCAL OWNERSHIP OF CHANGE, EVEN IN NATIONAL ORGANIZATIONS AND NETWORKS
One of the paradoxes of helping organizations scale their impact, including through national growth, is the risk of disconnection with the assets, ideas, needs, aspirations, and trust of local communities. This doesn’t mean that every community needs to reinvent every wheel (not to mention how the wheel gets manufactured, evaluated, and distributed). It does mean that we need much more sophisticated ways to harness nationally-oriented and large-scale pools of capital of all types – financial, social, political, intellectual – and partner up with local leaders in local communities. Spurred by dialogue with LIFT CEO and Founder Kirsten Lodal, Family Independence Initiative Founder Mauricio Lim Miller, Mayor Shirley Franklin, Mayor Kasim Reed, Mayor A.C. Wharton, parent leaders, and others, Gathering participants have responded in different ways. These include incorporating community voice and design thinking into strategy and operations, devolving decision making power to local levels, reconceptualizing the role of national organizations from impact replicators to innovation hubs to power local work, and more.
ADVANCING SYSTEMS CHANGE THROUGH SYSTEM ENTREPRENEURSHIP
Sustained population-level change rarely happens by just growing great programs, or changing public policy, or building social movements on their own. System entrepreneurs are part of how all of these pieces of systems change can be knit together. Through systems-change work is not new and comes in many forms, as a field of practice, we see system entrepreneurship as nascent and in need of major advances in awareness, frameworks, practices, tools, and aligned funding.
Now in our 20th anniversary year, we are thinking anew about where the social impact field must go over the next 20 years. At our 2018 Gathering, we tackled three key topics: capitalizing diverse leaders and organizations; advancing system entrepreneurship; and exploring the “Future and Our Work” to get more informed and mobilized on the social sector implications of the big transformations in the workforce, technology, the economy, and the world. We were joined and informed by amazing leaders including keynote speaker Tim O’Reilly of O’Reilly Media, John B. King Jr. of The Education Trust, Byron Auguste of Opportunity@Work, Wendy Kopp of Teach For All, Rebecca Onie of Health Leads, Laura Weidman Powers of Code 2040, Tiffany Loftin of NAACP, DeRay Mckesson of Campaign Zero, Gerald Chertavian of Year Up, Steve Hatfield of Deloitte, Yscaira Jimenez of LaborX, and many more.
To date, nonprofit and other social sector leaders have played too little a role in the public debate and dialogue that is attempting to making sense of, and influencing the impact of, these forces. That’s what the Gathering is about, and the biggest risk we have to confront is that people who are struggling – the people we serve – will be left further behind by these forces.
We can do more than react to the rapidly arriving future. We can shape it, with a goal of equity and opportunity for all.
To explore the conversations that our community engaged in at the 2018 Gathering, visit our Gathering of Leaders page.