Threads 2015: Independent Sector Conversations in 13 U.S. Cities

Publication date: 
October, 2015
Independent Sector

In 2015, Independent Sector convened Threads, a series of community conversations with foundation and nonprofit sector leaders in 13 U.S. cities. In the Northwest, Thread conversations took place at Empire Health Foundation's Philanthropy Center in Spokane, Washington on June 16 and at Impact Hub Seattle on June 26.

Three themes from the Threads Spokane report:

  1. Relationships Among Organizations: Attendees in many Thread cities have talked about the lack of overall collaboration in the sector. The discussion in Spokane, however, was slightly different. Here the audience focused on how to work better together. For example, they addressed the need to communicate well; stay focused on common objectives; and recognize that effective collaboration takes time. They also explored how to differentiate organizations in a collaborative rather than competitive manner.
  2. Financial Sustainability: Participants stated that the current funding structure perpetuates bad practices such as a mentality of scarcity and short-term thinking. They were concerned that the need for fundraising drains capacity that should be funneled into programs. Some said new initiatives were “driven down” due to lack of funding; others said new programs had to be “invented” to get funding.
  3. Governance and Operations: Many called for increased professionalization of the sector. We should build the “business case” to garner support rather than offering an emotional appeal, stated one person. Others talked about board and organizational structures that don’t allow for quick decision making as developments in the field change. Finally, some mentioned the high cost of reporting/audits.

Four themes from the Threads Seattle report:

  1. Vision and Approach: Conversations took place about the urgent need to reset the power structure of the sector. “Where are the voices that talk from within the community?” asked one person. Others called on leadership to coordinate services better for those in need. In addition, others talked about how hard it is to overcome the fear of risk because “we don’t have room to fail and learn from failure.”
  2. Financial Sustainability: People talked about funding structures that perpetuate poor practices, a theme that has surfaced in other Threads gatherings. Specifically, this audience was concerned with “funding fads” that overshadow more thoughtful (but less sexy) work. They also noted a general lack of support for operations as well as funding that promoted competition over collaboration. Fina lly, some critiqued the funding cycle for rewarding short-term gains over long-term solutions.
  3. Operations and Governance: Participants mentioned the lack of time/funds for capacity building and the need for better governance. Regarding the latter, they specifically commented on ineffective boards (that needed to be better trained, more professionalized, less risk-averse, and prioritize long-term, systematic approaches).
  4. Community Engagement: Like other Threads, this audience underscored the need for greater engagement across the board. For example, some worried the sector is “isolating itself” and failing to “connect and partner” with society as a whole.

The full report from the 2015 series, Threads: Insights from the Charitable Community, is available from Independent Sector.