New York conference spotlights a social sector enjoying tremendous growth and new opportunities

Top leaders from the nonprofit arena gathered in New York at a conference co-sponsored by the Drucker Institute and the Leader to Leader Institute to share their insights on the future of the sector.

Among the main themes that emerged at the daylong event, held Nov. 19, 2007, at the McGraw-Hill Auditorium, were that the social sector is exploding, in terms of dollars and talent, providing a great deal of hope for a troubled world.

“I can answer what’s going on with three words: growth, excellence and innovation,” Tom Tierney, the chairman of Bridgespan, a nonprofit organization that provides management consulting to foundations and other nonprofits, told an audience of more than 100. He described what was happening as “a kind of industrial revolution for the nonprofit sector.”

Bill Drayton, the founder of Ashoka, used a different analogy. What social entrepreneurs across the globe are unleashing, he said, is much “like the civil rights movement or the women’s movement.”

Other presenters, panelists and moderators included William Foote, president of Root Capital; Jim Fruchterman, president of Benetech; New America Foundation fellow Douglas McGray; Tom Vander Ark, president of the X PRIZE Foundation; Vanessa Kirsch, president of New Profit Inc.; Robert Hughes, president of New Visions for Public Schools; Nancy Roob, president of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation; and John Byrne, executive editor of BusinessWeek.

A number of speakers cautioned that, in spite of all the positive trends, enormous challenges still confront the sector. Among them: ensuring that nonprofits are funded in a way that allows them to build their overall capacity to deliver results, not just to pursue specific programs. Nonprofits face a “pervasive bias against overhead,” Tierney cautioned. “This is insidious, it’s terrible—and it’s just stupid.”

Rick Wartzman, director of the Drucker Institute, welcomed the audience and explained how Peter Drucker anticipated the boom among nonprofits many years ago. Among other things, “Peter saw . . . the ability of nonprofits to provide cohesion and a sense of community,” Wartzman said, noting that Drucker called the sector “central to American society . . . and indeed its most distinguishing feature.”

“He wrote these words, of course, long before Bill Clinton trumpeted the power of giving,” Wartzman added. “Or Bill Gates and Warren Buffett made headlines with their remarkable munificence. Or publications like BusinessWeek began reporting on all this with a seriousness previously reserved for covering industry alone. Whether they know it or not, all of these folks—and so many of you—are building on the Drucker legacy.”

Later in the day, Wartzman chatted onstage with Steven M. Hilton, president of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, about how Drucker’s teachings are helping the 60-plus-year-old organization move forward.

Ira Jackson, a Drucker Institute board member and dean of the Peter F. Drucker and Masatoshi Ito Graduate School of Management, also took a few minutes just before the conference to speak with BusinessWeek about the day’s events and Drucker’s continuing impact on effective management and ethical leadership. To view that online interview, click here.