Breaking Boundaries: Net Impact Conference

By Cristina Bernardo – emzingo

Bringing together more than 5,000 students, business professionals,  social entrepreneurs, and NGOS, the Net Impact Conference aims to connect the private and the public sectors to create innovative solutions to the world’s largest social challenges; environment, poverty, joblessness and inequality amongst others.

This year’s theme centered around breaking boundaries, both within the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. Net Impact CEO, Liz Maw, led the conference encouraging and reminding us “change takes courage,” and those of us who feel so passionate about social issues must be prepared to fight.

Many amazing discussions ensued around clean energy, social startups, access to capital, and water sanitation, yet two particularly interesting themes emerged across sectors: 1) learning to make NGOs and social enterprises more sustainable and 2) recognizing the role privilege plays within the social enterprise space.



Dan Pallotta, author of Uncharitable, led the conference with his enthusiastic debate around the suffocating, ad-hoc limits placed upon the nonprofit sector.

He stressed that low salaries, a disdain for overhead costs, and miniscule marketing budgets are severely weakening the ability of nonprofits to achieve their missions, centering his argument around the poignant fact that “most people have a visceral reaction to making money helping people, but do not have a visceral reaction to making money NOT HELPING people.”

Making money in the nonprofit world is essentially viewed as a “sin,” he commented. Very few will argue that Judge Judy makes $45 million a year, but if the head of Red Cross makes $500,000+ a year, all red flags go off.  This in spite of the fact that the highest paying for-profit CEOs make on average 41 times as much as the their counterparts in the nonprofit sector.

Pallotta also stressed that “overhead” has become a dirty word in the sector, arguing that though most people do not see overhead charges as part of an NGO’s mission, these costs are essential to the growth and reach of any organization’s mission. Yet, most grants are awarded directly to a cause and cannot be used to pay for such important investments as staff, training, advertising, and strategic planning. In 2006, only 19% of U.S. grants were directed for general use, with 81% going directly to a social cause or program.

If we were to allow NGOs to offer competitive salaries, launch marketing campaigns, and invest in strategic planning, he argues, then positive impact could be dramatically increased. Citing one such example from his own experience, he explained how he used $350K in seed investment to launch a 3-day Breast Cancer Walk that raised $194,000,000 in net revenue for the cause.

We can no longer afford to pay people in the nonprofit sector “holy-points”, and built a new organization, the Charity Defense Council, to support the charitable sector in its fight for higher wages, marketing budgets, and more space to breathe… and grow.



Another greatly exciting discussion that emerged during the Net Impact Conference was the role of privilege in the social enterprise space. Kevin Lynch, of the Social Enterprise Alliance, led a very challenging and heart-felt discussion on the impact of privilege on his life and the social impact space. He introduced himself as a man who had won the jackpot of privilege – a white, straight, well-educated, and well-fed middle-class male. He discussed that though he did not choose the privilege that he has, he still carries this privilege with him everyday. It is this privilege economy that largely defines where we are today. The harm however, he commented, is that the myth of privilege economy rewards only hard work and dedication, with the end result being that the financial economy rests disproportionately in the hands of the privileged.

Gregg Keesling of RecycleForce, also stressed the need to recognize and put a face on privilege. His social enterprise employs formerly incarcerated individuals in a very profitable recycling business. He argued that many people of privilege are scared of individuals who come out of the prison system and do not offer them the opportunities or chances that they deserve. Such discrimination can be so great, he argued, that he has seen two major wars in his lifetime “the war on poverty and the war on drugs. And both have failed miserably.” Powerful words, spoken from a man who lost his son in the Iraq war, to demonstrate just how important combatting privilege can be to achieving social goals.

Lynch also stressed the fact that privilege affects both those who benefit from the work of social enterprises, but also those who start them, alluding to the fact that most of the people who were at the conference, were also those who have benefited from privilege.

“We need to talk about the elephant in the room,” he said, “which is the roll privilege plays in getting into the village of social enterprise itself.” A very valid, and thought-provoking observation that left many, including myself, to contemplate and rethink for hours thereafter.


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