Reshaping the Independent Sector

Published in: GIA Reader, Vol 17, No 1 (Spring 2006)

Laura Penn

A few years ago, Laura Penn, managing director of Intiman Theatre in Seattle, met me for coffee at the Saint Francis Hotel. I was between sessions of the Independent Sector's (IS) national conference in San Francisco. Laura had never heard of IS and was curious about it. The Independent Sector is a coalition of corporations, foundations, and private voluntary organizations that works to strengthen nonprofit organizations and is committed to advancing the common good in the U.S. and around the world.* This nonpartisan coalition of some 500 organizations sponsors research on the not-for-profit sector and advocates for policies that will advance the needs of the people it serves. The Hearst Foundation's executive director, Robert Frehse, believes so strongly in the Independent Sector that, for several decades now, he has committed resources to sending grants officers from both the western office in San Francisco and our New York headquarters to the annual IS conferences. IS brings Hearst Foundation staff together with nonprofit leaders throughout the country in a neutral forum to discuss common concerns.

I was thrilled and delighted, and more than a little surprised, when Laura phoned and told me that she had registered to attend the 2005 IS conference in October. This year the conference brought together about 900 CEOs, trustees, and senior level professionals of grant seeking and grant making organizations to discuss topics such as the federal budget deficit, needs in the wake of Katrina, and transparent and effective governance. The theme was, "Reshaping the Social Compact." For me, though, the most inspiring part was the chance to connect with leaders who are passionate about the work they are doing and who are looking for creative ways to do it better. Walking up 14th Street with Laura in between sessions, I was twice blessed to hear her perspectives on what she was learning and to filter them through my own reflections. I had never pondered the ideas from these conferences through the lens of a theater company. And listening to the challenges as Laura sees them I can't help but think more imaginatively about the ways that funders might be more responsive to the needs of the arts. We learn much from one another, yet the opportunities to engage in creative, reflective conversation on a neutral platform where there isn't a grant at stake are sorely lacking.

Catherine Pyke
William Randolph Hearst Foundation,
San Francisco office

After more than twenty years in this industry, the past twelve as a managing director and the past five trying to guide a nonprofit arts organization through perilous economic and cultural times, I was in need of a little renewal. Now for some that might have meant a beach somewhere or mountain cabin, meditating — but for me it was the annual conference of the Independent Sector (IS) in Washington, D.C.

For several years Catherine Pyke had encouraged me to explore Independent Sector. Over time our conversations would inevitably move to dialogue about the health and future of our field and from there to the larger question of our communities and the world in general. Catherine believes that inherently the work of the arts sector could enhance the growing agenda of the IS and that I might in fact find some inspiration.

When this year's conference information arrived my attention was caught — “Reshaping the Social Compact.” I quickly took note of sessions on corporate social responsibility, civic engagement, movement building, and civic engagement in the twentieth century. As the meeting approached I picked up the phone and called Catherine. We arranged to meet in the hotel lobby. I took a moment or two to call a few arts colleagues to see if we could also arrange to meet. I was struck by the fact that not only was no one going — I could hardly find anyone who was even a member. I became more intrigued.

The conference was surprising — probably not for the reasons you might expect. Surprising because it was wide open with possibilities, because the arts were all but invisible, and because there seemed to be nothing but potential for us. Here was a gathering of many of the most influential leaders in our country — people dedicated to making our communities, our country, and indeed the world a better place; people who clearly have both a cultural life and a true sense of the big picture. They are our patrons, our board members, our donors. And yet, participation from the arts sector in this important dialogue was absent.

The opening plenary session began with an inspiring speech by IS president, Diana Aviv, on the question of the work that lies ahead for us. She spoke of the diminishing role of government, the place of the nonprofit sector, and the ethical imperative that underlies everything the nonprofit sector does. She was followed by a remarkable panel that further explored the question of the basic tenets of the social compact. What is a civil society? What should we do? How do we create thoughtful, reflective debate in the face of continually demeaning public dialogue driven by TV talk shows and the fad of the moment? I was waiting to hear about the arts' role in answering some of the questions posed. I waited and waited (I later learned that Bob Lynch of Americans for the Arts was in one of the queues during the Q & A hoping to bring the arts into the dialogue) but, alas, the session ended.

Later we loaded ourselves into buses for an evening at the American Indian Museum. Here, I hoped, would be the connection. But no. As I roamed the museum I eavesdropped, hearing over and over again — “I had no idea! Did you know?” Comment after comment revealed the “connections” being made between conference participants and the American Indian experience. But no leap was made to the conversation we had been engaged in all day. The food was great, the music beautiful, the experience enlightening, and yet no connection between this extraordinary experience of community and the art that propelled it. Surely tomorrow I thought.

The following day, I attended a session on corporate social responsibility, learning a great deal about the evolution of the CSR movement. At lunch there was a great session on “Civic Engagement and the Social Compact — a New Paradigm.” In particular there was talk of the ingrained narratives that exist in our communities and how difficult it is to change them. I began to think about our narrative as a community — the arts community's story in relationship to the rest of the nonprofit sector. Not only do we need to begin to help others change their story so that it includes us, but we also have to change our own internal narrative. How do we find the resources — spiritual and practical — to take on the challenge of changing our own story? How do the arts become a part of the vital dialogue that shapes the nonprofit sector? I don't know, but we must. I believe it was Mary McCarthy who said, “We are the hero of our own story.”

We must consider that in part “we” are the reason that “we” aren't on the agenda of the Independent Sector. Surely “they” won't see us until we see ourselves standing next to “them.” Our service organizations have long been members of IS, working to strengthen public policy for our field. Yet today, with the changing nature of the conversations at the IS and with the realities of our challenged field, it seems now is the time to consider how this cross-sector opportunity can be used to strengthen our work. Perhaps if we place ourselves (those of us in the arts community) in a different context in our own communities, then we can help begin a different conversation that will benefit the entire Independent Sector. As Catherine and I reconnected to share our observations I was struck by how similar we had become — no longer grantee and grantmaker — but individuals working within the same sector hoping to make a difference in the world.

Laura Penn is managing director, Intiman Theatre, Seattle. Catherine Pyke is program officer, the William Randolph Hearst Foundation, San Francisco office.

*Editor's note: In general, “the independent sector” is one of several terms often used to refer to the nonprofit sector. Other terms include “the third sector,” “voluntary sector,” philanthropic sector,” “social sector,” “tax-exempt sector,” and “charitable sector.”