I had the privilege of being the opening speaker at the recent 2013 Forum Annual Conference in Milwaukee, a gathering of regional associations (RAs). I was invited to the meeting after I wrote a blog several months ago that challenged RAs to move beyond their traditional role as trainer and convener and drive change by engaging a broader constituency around collaborative action. I argued this shift was critical if RAs are to play a central role in addressing our most pressing and persistent social and environmental challenges.
The social impact landscape is shifting and RAs must evolve too. There simply are not sufficient philanthropic or government resources to address many of our most pressing problems. Philanthropy has been stuck at two percent of GDP since we began measuring giving in the 1970s. The fiscal challenges of federal and state governments are well documented. Government spending on social programs is certain to diminish as Medicare, Medicaid, social security, and interest on government debt consume an ever greater share of the government pie. In the face of these challenges, RAs are well positioned to engage a broader group of social change agents, including individual donors who do most of the giving, the emerging generation of philanthropists, impact investors who are seeking financial, social, and environmental returns, and hybrid companies such as L3Cs and B Corps.
In the animated give-and-take following my remarks in Milwaukee, I was impressed to find that many RAs are actively thinking about how to evolve and engage a broader set of stakeholders. Our discussion revolved more around how to change than whether to change. RA leaders are rightly concerned about how to build new skill sets around relationship management, facilitation, problem solving, and collaboration. They wonder how they will pick the issues on which to focus. They wrestle with how best to provide value to a diverse and expanding world of constituents. And, most importantly, they are thinking about the revenue model that will support the evolving RA.
These are all legitimate concerns. But they should not stop RAs from trying on new roles, and reaching out to new partners. Some of what RAs try will fail, but some things will succeed. Those successes and failures can be shared and help the RA community evolve more quickly and effectively.
This is an inflection point for RAs. Though the process of evolution will bring many challenges, RAs must enhance the catalytic role they play in addressing the persistent problems we face.
Bruce Boyd is a principal and managing director at Arabella Advisors. He oversees the firm’s Chicago office and has led a range of engagements for Arabella’s foundation, individual and family, and corporate clients.