The theme was “Moving Forward for a Better Commonwealth,” but I don’t think that does justice to the richness of the content and the conversations of the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network annual conference. There are many reasons to go to the MNN’s annual gig — intriguing keynote, celebrating nonprofit heroes, networking, learning in workshops, seeing old friends  — but this year’s version felt particularly compelling.

While the “Moving Forward” theme was marginally present, the emphasis in the sessions I attended was on systems thinking and problem solving: rather than just address the symptoms, how do we bring about lasting systemic change to avoid the problems in the future? This question played out in the comments of keynote speaker Dr. Gurauraj “Desh” Desphande, in sessions like Shaun Adamec’s session on framing public narratives, and in multiple conversations over lunch and in the hallways.

That’s not to say MNN isn’t “moving forward.” MNN CEO, Jim Klocke identified three areas MNN is focusing on — advocacy, capacity building, and public awareness — and explained the steps they are taking to move forward in each of those areas.

While the abundance of good workshops makes it impossible to cover everything, I’d like to lift up a few highlights. I hope other writers do the same, so we can stitch together a more complete picture of the day.

“Desh” Desphande of the Deshpande Foundation

The best part of the morning was definitely hearing Deshpande speak. As an entrepreneur and business leader, Deshpande offered a fresh perspective and needed inspiration. His emphasis was on innovation across the spectrum from nonprofits to social enterprises to for-profit ventures and how innovation can help scale solutions to address systemic problems. His examples from the Deshpande Foundation and his entrepreneurial centers at MIT, Lowell Canada and India demonstrated what happens when you support and encourage social entrepreneurship to tackle social challenges. As he put it, “innovation + relevance = impact.”

“We need more compassion in our for-profit worlds and more execution excellence in our nonprofit world”

Shaun Adamec “Rise Above the Noise” session

Adamec’s session focused on framing that breaks through cultural mindsets to shift narratives. He first introduced us to the idea that we come to all issues with a set of cultural mindsets that predetermine how we take in information. This is not necessarily news but an excellent reminder that the messages we put our into the world on behalf of our organization or cause may not be received in the ways we imagine. In some cases, the messages your organization holds dear may in fact actually inhibit the effectiveness of your calls to action. He cited research on the issue of homelessness and demonstrated that empathetic language suppressed people’s willingness to support the cause.

“All that resonates is not gold”

Adamec did a wonderful job explaining that when we craft our messages with the wrong framing, it allows for our potential supporters to locate the problem with the faults and weaknesses of others rather than take on the systemic issues that give rise to the problems in the first place. For example, messages that claim that the problem with education is that teachers don’t care enough and students are too lazy often come to the conclusion that, since those things can’t be fixed, the entire system is broken and needs to be replaced. That becomes an intractable problem with no real solution. It’s simply too big.

Adamec had lots of other good stuff to share about how to use an efficacy/urgency quadrant to map message framing, but I’ll leave you with a final money quote:

“Messaging is not about resonating, it’s about moving towards the goal”

Christine Tieri on Branding

The last session I want to highlight was the last session of the day. Christine Tieri of the Idea Agency had me at “your brand is not your logo.” She then led participants through an abbreviated but well-structured process to come to a better understanding of how to develop a brand. One that is based on how the people you serve experience your organization.

One of her best takeaways was her Venn diagram locating brand at the intersection of management goals, internal culture, and audience motivation. I also appreciated her hands-on approach to branding. She walked us through the various worksheets and writing exercises that can help build a collaborative and mutually-held understanding of an organization’s true brand.

Sign me up for next year

I’ll definitely be submitting a proposal to speak at next year’s conference. There is definitely so much left to learn, and if this year’s conference was any indication, we can expect a lot of great stuff coming out of MNN over the next year.

Let me know if you went and what you learned. I’m also interested in hearing what else you’d like to learn about.