April 9, 2021
The Message from IFT Keynote Speaker Phil Buchanan? Be Courageous.

By Michelle Xiarhos Curran

ECCF Communications Writer


Own your “nonprofitness.”


This was one of the critical pieces of advice nonprofit board leaders were left with at the close of the 2021 Institute for Trustees (IFT) kickoff held on Wednesday, April 8.


“Your organizations serve a higher purpose, a mission that is about more than what can be captured in financial statements,” said author Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy and keynote speaker for the event.


This year marks Essex County Community Foundation’s 12th annual IFT – the region’s premier educational and networking conference for nonprofit board leaders – and the second time the event has been held virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


“As difficult as it’s been, I could not be more proud of what our nonprofit sector has done to not only survive this pandemic, but to meet the moment as required by us all,” ECCF President and CEO Beth Francis told board leaders attending the kickoff.


The 2021 IFT – which contains two dozen virtual workshops to be held over the course of the next six weeks – is being co-hosted by Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation (BTCF), based in Western Massachusetts. This new partnership is designed to expand the impact of the conference.


“We’re pleased that over 120 leaders from Berkshire Taconic’s region are joining this year’s Institute and learning alongside peers from Essex County,” said Peter Taylor, president of BTCF, a fellow member of the Massachusetts Community Foundations Partnership.


In total, nearly 800 nonprofit leaders – more than twice the usual number of IFT participants – have registered for the conference.


At the kickoff, Buchanan, who spoke for about a half-hour before taking questions, talked about the irrationality of expecting nonprofits to run like businesses. He explained his frustration at the false rhetoric he often hears about the social sector – organizations spend too much on overhead or they don’t innovate – and how he seeks to counteract it in every interaction he has with donors.


“Thinking this way leads to missed opportunities in philanthropy,” he said.


Buchanan told stories of nonprofit heroes he knows – people who exude kindness, caring and an unrelenting passion in the jobs they do every day – and encouraged IFT participants to think about this aspect of the work often.


“These jobs take everything it takes to run an equivalent-sized business and then some. As board members, I want you – need you – to know that. And remember that,” Buchanan said.


Before ending his remarks with vital advice for nonprofit Board and staff, Buchanan also spoke about how he’s devoted the last 20 years of his professional life to influencing donors’ understanding of the uniquely challenging work nonprofits do so that they will support nonprofits in the ways they need to be supported. Recent research conducted by the Center for Effective Philanthropy has revealed that nonprofits:


  • Seek understanding from their donors.
  • Value transparency from their donors.
  • Need MYGOD: multi-year general operating dollars.


“Finally, we have sought to educate donors about the fact that, almost by definition, nonprofits are often working on the toughest challenges, the ones that have defied market or government solutions,” he said.


This is especially true in a year like this one.


“The good news is that many individual and foundation donors did step up over the last year,” Buchanan said. “We see in data we’ll be publishing in the coming weeks that nonprofits have had to take many touch actions, but not to the degree that they feared in June. And that’s in no small part because of the ways donors stepped up.”


Five Things Phil Buchanan Suggests for Nonprofit Board Members and Leaders to Navigate This Moment:


  • Own Your “Nonprofitness.” Resist the urge to use business language and ill-fitting frameworks, or to dumb down your approach to assessing performance.
  • Stand up for – and Take Care of – All Your Staff. Engage, at the board level, in the tough conversation about what it really takes to attract and retain excellent staff.
  • Take Care of Your Executive Directors. Take the long view and make sure you’re supporting your ED in maintaining some balance in her life.
  • Move the Diversity, Racial Equity and Inclusion From Talk to Action. Look at who is on your board. Look at your hiring and employment practices and do simple things that reduce opportunities for bias and increase diversity.
  • Use Your Voice and Seek to Inform and Influence the Public and Policy. Whatever your goals, it is highly likely you can’t achieve them alone.


“My view is that this country’s nonprofit sector is an essential part of what is good in our society,” Buchanan said to close out his talk. “From the art that brightens our lives and challenges us, to the vaccinations that prevent disease, to the human rights that have been secured, philanthropy and nonprofits are often behind our greatest gains. Take pride in that. Don’t forget it.”


Watch for more IFT coverage in the coming weeks at eccf.org.

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