Top 5 Takeaways from the 2015 Annual Conference

OConnor_Susan_175x175By Susan Merrill O’Connor

  • Nametags recycled – check.
  • Evaluations tallied – check.
  • Bill received from venue – check.
  • Wedding dress sent to cleaners – oops, wrong post-event checklist … although the Center staff still has a warm glow after the love we non-profits all shared less than a month ago at our annual conference, Power, Purpose, Performance: Non-Profits Growing a Thriving Garden State, on December 2, 2015.

2015 NJ Non-profit Conference LogoDid we see you there along with over 400 of your closest non-profit friends and family? If so, we hope we got a chance to tell you how much we appreciate all you do for New Jersey. But, often like being in the wedding party, we only had fragmented conversations, waves from afar and quick handshakes or hugs.

The conference, as we all know, isn’t a party (though there was plenty of good food and enjoyment to be had). It’s a chance to connect with allies old and new, foster a collective spirit, and gain valuable insight and tools for the good work you do every day.

The 2015 conference was also the start of some wonderful relationships and important dialogues — including these Top 5 Takeaways many of you shared with us:

1.  Non-profits are powerful.  What we do changes lives.

Conference Plenary
Conference plenary – over 400 strong! (photo by Carl Gachet)

An important theme of the conference is the strength of non-profit organizations – not only strength of mission and purpose, but also strength in numbers and economic clout. As we like to point out (often), New Jersey non-profits employ 10% of the workforce, in New Jersey and nationally, and our state’s non-profits spend approximately $38 billion each year, much of it within the Garden State. We heard repeatedly that the conference was an uplifting reminder of what the non-profit community means.

“The non-profit sector is important, and powerful. We often recognize our individual importance by thinking about our impact so we can report it to funders and donors, but not our collective impact or power. Vu
[luncheon keynote
speaker Vu Le] emphasized that it’s time for a shift in our collective thinking, speaking and action around our power and import.”
— Barbara Heisler, Executive Director, GlassRoots

2.  Our purpose and passion are most effective when we work together.

Joan Garry
Morning Keynote Speaker Joan Garry (photo by Carl Gachet)

The morning keynote was certainly not “decaf” with Joan Garry’s rousing salute to us all,You are the Champions: The Power and Privilege of Non-Profit Leadership.” Joan shared what it takes to have a 5-star board and staff team, including, “Executive directors and board chairs must put the shared leadership challenge on the table and go through roles and responsibilities and get on the same page,” and “talking about what success will look like in the next year under your shared leadership.”

3.  The “scarcity mindset” hurts us all. 

Trends in Philanthropy Panel
Trends in Philanthropy Panel (photo by Carl Gachet)

For people with such big hearts, we shouldn’t think so small. In several of our 14 breakout sessions including “Trends in Philanthropy,” funders talked about investing in capacity building and core operations. Vu called upon us all to end the “Non-profit Hunger Games, stop apologizing, stop chasing approval from charity watchdogs and take more risks.”


“The impact of our work is vital and is a better story to tell than what our overhead was.” — Philip Salerno III, President, Children’s Specialized Hospital Foundation

“Service providers and funders all share the same goal of making a more just and equitable and inclusive world, so can’t we work together to make that a reality?  That strikes me as an important part of what the Center’s conference is all about.”
— Keith Timko, CEO, Support Center | Partnership in Philanthropy

4.  Humor helps!

Vu Le
Luncheon Keynote Speaker Vu Le (photo by Carl Gachet)

Humor was a centerpiece of the keynote addresses of both Joan Garry and Vu Le; and as Vu often says, “it’s important to take the work seriously, but not ourselves.” Time and time again during the day, we saw the power of laughter to break the ice, forge new friendships or reinforce important points.  It’s telling that one of Vu’s biggest laughs came from his description of “Nonprofit: The TV Show” – featuring the Development Director played by a different actor every two weeks.

 “The laughing was in reality a recognition that the context of the presentations were not only funny, but also recognized the fact that non-profits do share similar concerns and experiences.  Each and every non-profit may be an entity unto its own, but they are not alone in trying to build organizational and functional capacity.”
— Jacob Toporek, Executive Director,
New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations

5.  We’re all in the right line of work – but with a lot of work ahead of us!

Conference intro
(photo by Carl Gachet)

For many, including board members, volunteers, staff at all levels, and allies in the for-profit world, we enjoyed the opportunity to tell each other just how much we love our work, our mission and the people we serve. We also liked hearing the innovative ideas others are implementing in our state and nationwide. The conference, like a summit, gave us new relationships to forge, important tasks to undertake and tools and inspiration to make positive changes for our organizations.

Having attended the Center’s conference for several years, each time it seems to get better and be even more impactful.  As the champion of the nonprofit community, the Center has a significant responsibility to its members and guests to deliver meaningful material that addresses current challenges but also to provide us with some vision for the future. It was clear that the conference brought us information to use, not only today, but as a guide for the future – to help us think more strategically and to help us prepare to be more relevant in a world that is constantly changing.”
– Sally Glick, Principal and Chief Growth Strategist, Sobel & Co.

While of course we know it wasn’t a wedding we attended at the Palace at Somerset, we’ve always been married to the promise of helping organizations build a better New Jersey. We want to get to know more about you, your organization’s mission, triumphs and challenges, and how the Center can help your organization in its important work.

We thank our sponsors, staff, conference committee, exhibitors, speakers, presenters and volunteers for making the 2015 conference the biggest – and, according to many, the best yet. We hope we’ll see you on December 7, 2016, at next year’s conference, and look forward to staying in touch regularly in the meantime.

2016 Conference Save the Date - December 7, 2016


What were your top conference takeaways? What do you want to see at next year’s conference? Let us know in the comments below!


Susan Merrill O’Connor is communications specialist of the Center for Non-Profits, New Jersey’s statewide umbrella organization for the charitable community.  Through advocacy, public education, technical assistance and cost-saving member services, the Center works to build the power of New Jersey’s non-profit community to improve the quality of life for the people of our state.