Imagining The Nonprofit Sector in 2024

SEATTLE – “Do no harm. Do more good.” Knowing what is possible and what is “barely achievable” and still going for it is how nonprofit leaders can imagine the future. Those were the words of Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps, during an opening session Sunday of Independent Sector’s annual conference held this year in Seattle.

The panel discussion was “Imagine Our Future,” and Keny-Guyer was joined by Kelvin Taketa, president and CEO of the Hawaii Community Foundation, Susan Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Earl Lewis, CEO of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. It launched a conference of more than 1,200 sector leaders designed to think about the next 10 to 25 years and the sector’s role in the evolving world.

Taketa interviewed the panelists and they told of the roads traveled to get to their positions and how it impacted their thinking and management. They spoke of the world being on the brink in certain areas and the opportunities. Lewis spoke of being in a transitional generation, one where he went to segregated schools and then transitioned into desegregated schools.

Mercy Corps is one of the few nonprofit organizations allowed to operate in North Korea. Keny-Guyer has also spent time in Southeast Asia and other world hotspots. He warned that all of the advances can be gone in an instant if a nation becomes unstable and goes “back to violence.” He said that weak “global governance” and “strategic competition between nation states” threatens enormous progress made in global cooperation. There are more people displaced by violence now than in any time since World War II.

Issues such as Ebola are seen as the problem of “others,” Desmond-Hellman said, just as the AIDS epidemic was viewed during the 1980s. There is a lack of coming together to get things fixed. “When people come together it can be meaningful for all of us,” she said.

Lewis was an educator for 30 years and his students taught him a lesson that he carries to this day. They went around the room telling tales and collectively developed stories. These were teens who said they could not imagine a better world tomorrow. By the time the storytelling was complete, “they still believe there is a story to be written,” he said.

The key is patience, they said and that starts with funders and the obsession for immediate metrics. The panelists seemed in agreement that timelines for implementation and evaluation windows need to be lengthened from five to 10 or even 25 years.

The future needs to be informed by history and there needs to be a “vision for how we perfect it,” Lewis said.

Desmond-Hellman said the goal for 10 years from now is to have fewer poor countries in the world through dealing with equity issues while in the United States ensuring that families look to education as “the escalator it should be.” She also wants grantees to have had a positive interaction with the foundation.

The world will be in a better place in 10 years, according to Keny-Guyer, if the sector focuses on three things: instability; inequity and disparity; and, sustainability. It will bring about a “seamless web of compassion,” he said.