NGen:In the Room at the NGen Keynote Dinner

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Guest blog by: Leonor Alfonso, senior program specialist, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations

My head was already spinning with new ideas as I sat down at a table during the NGen Keynote Dinner to close out the first day of the NGen program. But, I had to hear the keynote speech about how I should fail a lot more than I succeed. It was hard to fathom how that could even be possible!

As it turns out, it was a perfect chance to begin connecting the dots. Mike Goorhouse of Council of Michigan Foundations and chair of the NGen Advisory Group kicked things off by sharing some amazing statistics about the 2011 NGen cohort — it is sophisticated, dedicated and here to lead. For example, did you know that…?
• …39 percent of NGen participants are CEOs or senior-level managers
• …The average age is 32
• …66 percent have worked in the nonprofit sector for six years or more
• …61 percent have worked in the private or government sectors before their current nonprofit position

Next came what I thought were refreshing and appreciated perspectives from Julie Gehrki of Walmart Foundation and Christine Rhee of American Express Company about why their foundations support the NGen program. They believe leadership capacity is core to our field’s success. Sponsoring NGen emerging leaders allows them to work toward social change.

Then Esther Aguilera of Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and chair of the NGen Fellow Selection Committee presented the remarkable 2011 NGen fellows, 12 current leaders in our field doing amazing work. One by one, the fellows came up to the stage to have their photos taken and receive their awards. Talk about an impressive group!

After a delicious family-style dinner and the delicate sounds of Ben Pila’s masterful guitar playing, Ben Rattray, founder and CEO of gave a TED- like talk that armed me with courage and maybe even a little audacity.

Ben’s talk was titled, “Why Nearly Everything You Try Should Fail.” He started out by describing an important moment’s evolution where he and his team decided to end half of their operations to refocus on doing one thing well. After this “pivot point” the organization has dramatically multiplied its reach and impact. He shared that they came to recognize that they could either be good at two things or great at one thing. They chose to be great.

My main takeaway from his talk is that if you’re not afraid of failing then you’re not afraid to end programs that are underperforming and are draining resources — be unafraid!  He and his organization are willing to take risks through an iterative process of learning from their mistakes, and it has paid off.

After the talk, Ben and David McKinney of Public Allies, and an inaugral American Express NGen Fellow, sat down for a more in-depth conversation about failure. Taking audience questions with an active Twitter feed on screen, Ben shared that perhaps programs won’t end as a result of failure, but they will most certainly transition. The path to success is lined with numerous pivot points. The key is to always maintain focus on meeting your mission and make decisions accordingly. Ben’s parting words were a challenge to funders in the room: Place big bets on small groups of people to do great things.

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