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The Nonprofit Crystal Ball: What Does the Future Hold?

Chautauqua Institution President Michael E. Hill addressed the annual Nonprofit Networking Day conference hosted on Oct. 17, 2018, by the Cattaraugus Community Foundation at St. Bonaventure University's Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts. His remarks as prepared for delivery, with light edits, are provided below.

Good morning. It’s a pleasure to be with you for this gathering of some of the most important leaders in our region. The nonprofit sector is not only an important economic and social driver in communities across our nation, but I believe this sector also represents the heart and soul of our communities.

And since St. Bonaventure University is a place that develops great minds for the future that are informed and shaped by the Franciscan tradition — a charism that celebrates and elevates community inclusiveness, service to others and the dignity of all human beings, I think it is most fitting that we gather here for the important conversations of this day.

I love speeches whose themes and titles invoke the “crystal ball.” This icon of soothsaying conveys like none other the magic that is truly required to see into the future. 

Certainly, today, we have data and analytic tools and technologies that can help us to predict what will happen in the future better than ever before — so much so that the literal, concrete thinkers among us likely completely disregard the role of magic in predicting what is to come.

I happen to come from the other end of that continuum. I believe in the value of today’s predictive gifts, but I also believe deeply in the magic that comes from intelligent, dedicated people sitting together, informed by data, but using the human spirit and capacity for optimism to not only predict the future but shape the future. That’s really where the magic comes into play.

This room is full of future shapers — people who beat the predictive odds every day; who turn one dollar into 10; who dream impossible dreams and make them come true. 

I am excited to share some observations that are helping my organization predict and shape the future. Hopefully, some of these insights will resonate with you and inspire a day of purposeful dreaming for the benefit of our organizations and community.

I’ve chosen to focus my talk on three areas: strategy, diversity and service — as these are areas that are taking center stage at Chautauqua and, I think, are likely at least somewhere on the priority lists of all nonprofit organizations today.


Let’s start with strategy because, frankly, that is where we all have to start. It seems like a simple concept; a popular one at least. Strategy is the topic of countless best-selling books by some of the world’s most notable leaders. It is a buzzword that, when dropped into any conversation, may seem to give it more purpose. But, often, we are not all talking about the same thing when we speak of strategy, so I think it’s helpful to level-set.

The definition I like to use comes from strategy expert Ann Latham. She says: “A strategy is a framework for making decisions. [It] … clearly establishes the game you are playing and how you expect to win. It also identifies the games you aren't playing — the things you have no intention of delivering, even if your best customer [client, or constituent] begs you.”

The key to strategy for all types of businesses, but in particular for nonprofits, is choice. Real strategies call you to choose what you will do and what you will not do; the latter — at least in our case — can be the most difficult choice to make of all.

And, the true essence of strategy is differentiation — understanding with great certainty what unique value you bring to those you exist to serve.

So many times, nonprofits tend to collect their attributes — the things they do well and the outcomes they are most proud of — and bundle them up together as a series of “benefits” that we bring to our constituents. We somehow think that it’s this collection of benefits and outcomes that differentiates us, makes us relevant, and magically composes a strategy that will lead to earned revenue and philanthropic gifts. And seldom are those attributes unique just to us! We become so engrossed in these things that we lose sight of the fact that they have become irrelevant to those we exist to serve. Attributes are only assets if they are valued by — or bring value to — your constituents. Otherwise, they are a liability.

Think of how libraries have changed over the past decade or so. Libraries used to be places characterized by quiet. Their “strategy” — which evolved over time — was to be a central resource where people could go to find information that they could not find anywhere else. They were addressing a very important need — there were few other organizations who competed in that realm — and, as a result, earned and philanthropic dollars sustained them for decades.

Then came the Internet. The “information superhighway.” Word on the street was that libraries would disappear. Why do we need these repositories of information when we can get it at our fingertips? Why, indeed?!

Libraries quickly changed their strategy from that of serving as a repository of information to a gathering place for assimilation, conversation, integration. Libraries are now centerpieces of community action and engagement. In some cases, they are serving as a critical connection to the world for those who may not otherwise have access to the Internet. The point is, their strategy evolved as their constituents’ needs changed. 

At Chautauqua, we are framing strategy by seeking to answer four primary questions:

  1. Where do we compete? 
  2. What unique value do we bring to those we serve?
  3. What resources do we use to deliver our unique value?
  4. How can our unique value be sustained?

In the process of raising and answering these questions, we were called to gather a great deal of data and engage a number of people at various levels of the organization in the analysis of that data. As a result, we now have a much more comprehensive understanding of our competitive environment. We have clarified at staff and board levels alike who and what we are competing with, and we have put into place some mechanisms to keep this knowledge fresh; to follow trends so we can adapt as necessary.

We are also developing a much more sophisticated understanding of the audiences we are serving and those we hope to serve; their needs and aspirations. This is not only helping to shape our strategy and to zero in on our true points of differentiation, but it is also causing us to raise and answer questions about some of our historic business practices that may be working against our strategic intent.

For example, we have said for decades that we wish to invite greater diversity to the grounds of Chautauqua, but that intent has not yet translated into desired outcomes. Inasmuch as some 70 percent of our business has come to us from referrals, it stands to reason that we’ve been self-perpetuating those who come in the same image of those who have always come. 

From a bottom line perspective, this is a good thing. In fact, it has sustained us including through the most difficult economic crisis since the Great Depression. But, absent the process of methodically considering the strategy that we will choose to frame and shape our future, we might have been swimming upstream for another decade as it relates to our diversity aspirations. We are considering our methods of delivery and engagement and the roles that technology, for example, needs to play in the future of Chautauqua. And, we are considering a significant shift in our earned revenue and philanthropic focus – and considering the need to diversify our earned revenue streams and shift the focus of our fundraising efforts. 

We know that the strategy that we are considering is indeed a strategy (versus a goal, objective or optimizing tactic) because it has called us to raise and answer these four important questions. That’s how you really know you’re talking strategy versus something else. Strategy is so big it raises the level of the conversation. And if you’re looking for another litmus test, if it doesn’t raise uncomfortable questions, you’re probably not doing it right or pushing yourself hard enough!

In the interest of complete transparency — this work isn’t easy, and it has not been easy for us. We have been benefitting from the guidance of an external consulting group and, depending on your circumstance, you may also need some external help to guide you through this conversation. At the very least, perhaps an impartial third-party could facilitate your strategy conversation for you. We are fortunate to be in the midst of one of the nation’s best Schools of Business. I bet there are resources available to you that you may not be aware of, and as a trustee of St. Bonaventure University, it’s my job to share the good news of this incredible university.

But, my crystal ball tells me one thing for sure: strategy is important, it’s worth the time you will invest in getting it right and, increasingly, it will be the key to sustainability for nonprofits.

Diversity Imperative

The next thing I see in my crystal ball for nonprofits is an imperative to figure out how to more authentically and effectively embrace inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility as keys to your sustainability. So many of us understand the importance of diversity, but we have been unsuccessful in implementing diversity goals or — if we have been able to name the goals, we have had difficulty achieving the outcomes.

I get it that it may appear as a bit risky for me — a white guy, a member of the most privileged of privileged classes — to be standing before a group of colleagues talking about diversity. What do I know about diversity?

I think we first need to take a step back and create a shared understanding of what we mean when we talk about diversity — or as we are considering it at Chautauqua with the acronym IDEA (inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility) — and what shared visions we might want to create to enhance the IDEA of our workplaces, boards, and the forums we create.

That’s where we are at Chautauqua — in the process of defining exactly a vision for IDEA at the organization. Let me be clear to say: this is not to water down or create the justification of a “proxy” for diversity, such that, “Oh well, we can’t get black folks or Muslims to come to Chautauqua in any significant numbers, so we’re going to define our own ‘version of diversity.’” I want to underscore: That’s not what I’m talking about.

What I am saying is — it’s not a good idea to assume we are all saying the same thing, or that we all have the same vision of this IDEA. So, we are being intentional about defining our vision for and definition, and we’re also being extremely clear about why it matters.

I am suggesting to you as colleagues, if you haven’t done this important work, take a step back and survey your leadership team; survey your staff and other stakeholders. Ask them how they define IDEA and where they think you’re going as an organization related to your IDEA goals.

How many of you have done this already?

If your organization is like Chautauqua — either in the process of defining your vision of inclusion, diversity, equity and accessibility or you’re open to thinking about spending some time on this, I want to share with you some resources and ideas that are helping us to shape our vision and definition.

First: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. While we do this important work of introspection, I made the decision to put a stake in the ground to say: We know diversity and inclusion is an issue at Chautauqua; we believe that attracting larger populations of people who come from different backgrounds and beliefs is important to the sustainability of Chautauqua; and we aren’t going to wait until we have a perfect definition or vision to begin the work.

The very act of putting that stake in the ground — acknowledging our vulnerability and making the commitment to do something about it — led to philanthropic gifts that have given us a significant jump-start in this work. Four individuals not only made a major gift to help us bring people of color to the grounds over the next five years, but they pledged resources for us to hire experts to help us create our vision and plan.

So, the very act of saying “This is a priority” — and we know we have huge mountains to climb — literally created resources to help us pursue this important work. I would bet that every one of the organizations in this room has patrons who will support you in similar ways; perhaps some of you have had a similar experience to mine.

The other reason why this “white guy” has the power and ability to stand before you and talk about diversity is that I must. It’s my responsibility as a leader, as a person who has the opportunity to stand behind a microphone now and then, and as a human on the planet. And, if I didn’t know that before, one of our visiting lecturers last summer, author, historian and powerful voice behind the Black Lives Matter movement Shaun King lit a fire under me. Please watch:

Shaun speaks so eloquently about the reasons I feel it’s imperative that I serve as a messenger about the importance of diversity. He turns the entire paradigm around: I’m exactly the person who needs to serve as a spokesperson on this issue. We all have a role in this … and a responsibility.

The very fact that you are here today says that you enjoy some level of privilege. The very act of embracing the power of your own voice and action will make a difference — it already is.

But why does it matter?

I assume that everyone in this room understands the importance of diversity and many or most of us champion diversity as a strategic priority and core value in our organizations.

I am willing to bet, though, that even though words to this effect have found their way to your governing documents, your mission statements and your strategic plans, there are likely some in your organizations or on your boards or among your stakeholder groups who think you’re talking mostly about numbers and percentages. There may even be some who think that achieving representation is the end game.

While that may have been the case in the past, and, trust me, numbers are important and a great place to start, I think we all need to do a better job of articulating the real meaning and value that diversity brings to our tables — and to create shared understanding of why this work is hard — and why we all must wake each day with it at the front of our thinking.

Dr. Johnnetta Cole, the former president of both Bennett and Spelman colleges, has been a guide and a consultant for us. When I first talked to her, she asked me what we were trying to achieve. When I told her that I believed we were convening the most important conversations of the day but that those conversations lacked the complexity they could because we were speaking to a primarily white audience, she asked me to consider a different definition – one that led as much to an anthropology project about our customs, culture and history as it did any statistical pursuit of diversity by race, gender, economic capabilities or any other measure!

One of the other common themes for us has been members of our Boards, our staff and our community who have lifted up this goal but then looked at the administration of the institution to deliver a magic plan to fix it … and a plan that we would execute, as if those we serve have no role in the solution. Dr. Cole had some words for that as well. Please listen:

Again, I’m not indicating that this is easy, but I am indicating that it’s no longer optional.

A dear friend of mine and one of my earliest thought partners at Chautauqua, Dr. Eboo Patel, the founder and CEO of Interfaith Youth Core, describes the depth and nature of this work particularly well. One piece of decoding is necessary to understand this segment of his talk: he refers a couple times to hoarding potatoes and carrots, because earlier in his talk he shared the story of “Stone Soup.” In the interest of time, I cut that piece out, but I think you can still get the meaning. Please watch:

I am convinced the solutions to the challenges we all face can be created and discovered most effectively in diverse communities. In the absence of diversity — or, while we strive to achieve diversity — I believe these solutions can be pursued effectively in relatively homogenous communities that are doggedly intentional about making up for the gaps that exist — not as a “nice to have”, not as a politically or socially motivated obligation, but because you know your mission will be more deeply fulfilled and your outcomes more productive because of this intentionality.

So, how can we make up gaps?

I’d be interested to know how you are doing it, but we are creating advisory groups in some of our key areas. Advisory groups are sometimes easier to form because the obligations are less stringent than foundation boards or boards of trustees. They can change as the issues and needs change, and you can be more liberal in the ways in which you facilitate engagement, using online tools for remote participation, for example.

At Chautauqua, we’re also focusing intently on programming, ensuring we not only present a balanced range of perspectives, but that we use the resources we have to bring in speakers and presenters as a vehicle to support our community’s IDEA vision. If you want a diversity of thought, those folks who make up diverse populations must see themselves and their stories in your core programming, communications and intentions.

And, as we engage with these partners, we are very transparent about the challenges we face and our vision for the future. We are being unapologetic about our need for help. It’s amazing what people will do for you when you ask them for help.

My crystal ball says the authentic pursuit of diversity as part of your mission will engage people in deep and meaningful ways; in ways that will call them to invest their time, talent and treasure and, in doing so, will lead you to find solutions to the intractable problems of our time.

An Unrelenting Focus on Service

And, finally, my crystal ball tells me I should say something about service — service as a niche for nonprofits and, potentially, as a source of sustainability.

Simply put, service is the interface of your organization with those you aim to serve — your customers — your audiences. On its own, service is not a differentiator.

But, a world-class service environment can elevate a sound strategy and make it more sustainable.

Hill NND2018

This graphic depicts Chautauqua’s service strategy, which we adapted from the Walt Disney World model — and no, we are not trying to turn Chautauqua into Walt Disney World. But Disney definitely knows something about service — and we have aimed to adapt their methodology to our context and environment. 

At its foundation, service excellence is about aligning people, processes (policies, procedures) and infrastructure for the delivery of an excellent experience. If you are able to achieve a world-class level of service, research suggests the result will be a self-regenerating business model, where your customers, clients and even donors themselves begin to drive your resource engines through referrals. 

Aside from this very tangible outcome — investing in your service culture can create some unintended experiences and outcomes for you. The very act of having intentional conversations with your staff and volunteers about what service excellence means to you, what it says about your organization and its values, will, I guarantee you, lead to productive relationship building, idea generation and, ultimately, a more valuable experience for those you serve.

In just one year at Chautauqua, following the methodical implementation of a renewed service strategy, we saw a more than 3 percent increase in our guests’ perceptions of the customer service experience at Chautauqua. This testimonial says it all:

“We just came home from a week at CHQ (our third year) and I have yet to come across a less-than-stellar employee on the grounds. In fact, after leaving the Institute, I had to adjust back to “real world” service levels at stores and fast food restaurants (which leave something to be desired). Chautauqua staff and employees spoil us with their engagement, friendliness, and efforts to ensure a rich CHQ experience!”

For us, it’s also an ultimate manifestation of our mission — and our founding originally as a Christian organization that has evolved to welcome people of all faiths and none. Regardless of our spirituality, as humans on the planet — and certainly as nonprofit leaders — we can all agree on the wisdom of the Golden Rule. That is ultimately what our focus on service is about: Treating people well. 

While there are many things I see in my crystal ball, these three things are very clear: the importance of strategy, IDEA and service in the lives of nonprofits in both the short and near terms. It is an honor to be on this journey with you.

Thank you.

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