NGO leaders discuss what it takes to make change at Aspen Ideas Fest

Aspen Institute CEO Dan Porterfield, left, chats with Jonathan Greenblatt, Elisa Villanueva Beard and Jonathan Reckford during an Aspen Ideas Festival session on Wednesday, June 28, 2023, in Aspen.
Riccardo Savi/Aspen Ideas Festival

Change is never easy. No one knows that better than the leaders of some of the most prominent non-profits pushing for it.

The CEOs of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Teach for America (TFA), and Habitat for Humanity International (HFHI) discussed what it takes to lead a nongovernmental organization with Aspen Institute CEO Dan Porterfield on Wednesday afternoon. 

All three leaders agreed that setting clear priorities and adhering to the organization’s values is a solid guide to change.

“We should be religious about our principles, but not our tactics, and sometimes being clear what’s a principle and what’s a tactic is really helpful,” HFHI CEO Jonathan Reckford said. “We’ve changed a lot of our operating processes, but we haven’t changed our core principles at all.”

For TFA CEO Elisa Villanueva Beard, the three guiding principles are accountability to community, maintaining an external lens, and human connection.

In an age of rapid digitization, it can be hard to keep up with the most efficient strategies. In 2020, when TFA set its 10-year goals for 2030, she realized the current approach would not allow them to meet their goal of doubling the number of children who are hitting key educational milestones that put them on the pathway to economic mobility.

Recognizing this challenge, TFA started the Ignite Fellowship Program to expand its reach through tutoring.

“Our approach today is pretty unrecognizable than it was even three years ago,” she said. “And I think that’s a good thing because we are in that position to be more agile, able to be responsive to the changing world. We’re learning a lot, and we’ll continue to iterate as we go.”

In addition to setting a clear vision and values, ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt emphasized the importance of company culture.

“Leaning into people meant a lot of changes,” he said.

For an NGO that relies on donors for funding, standing up for the company’s values can sometimes lead to challenges. He has faced criticism from both the left and the right for speaking out about political issues.

Both he and Reckford emphasized the value of remaining open-minded to combat the divisiveness of the nation. Greenblatt suggested that cancel culture should be replaced by “counsel culture,” with the exception of cases where people are dehumanizing others.

“We should not cancel people; we should try to bring them in and educate them,” he said.

Jonathan Reckford, CEO of Habitat for Humanity International, a global Christian housing organization, talks during an Aspen Ideas Festival session on Wednesday in Aspen.
Riccardo Savi/Aspen Ideas Festival

Civil conversations with people who hold different beliefs is critical for shifting the culture. This became especially apparent during the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, when renewed attention was turned toward racial equity.

According to Beard, diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) have been at the center of TFA’s mission since its founding. However, she emphasized that DEI and racial equity are not the same. Rather than just focusing on representation, achieving racial equity requires a cultural shift.

“It’s about how you are and what you prioritize, and the conditions that you set,” she said. “You still have the same organization and conditions. You’re just bringing people who look different and have different experiences into it. When the culture hasn’t adapted to ensure there’s deep belonging and inclusiveness of all people, you start to run into these really hard moments.”

For ADL, which was founded with the goal of combating hate, the political movement in 2020 motivated them to use their platform and resources to share their privilege. Since they had the infrastructure to monitor online extremists, Greenblatt said ADL detected activity of white supremacists organizing through Facebook groups to undermine and discredit the BLM protests.

When Facebook failed to respond to the ADL’s warnings, he reached out to the leaders of two civil-rights organizations — Color of Change and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People — to organize a campaign to hold social media companies accountable for hate on their platform. 

“We had all the monitoring, we knew everything, and we took a step back and let others help lead this,” Greenblatt said.

In addition to the monitoring purpose that ADL utilizes, data can be used to track the performance of the organizations and ensure their strategies continue to align with their goals, according to Beard.

“We have to be evidence-based because the stakes are so high for our kids,” she said. “We are teaching our kids of greatest need, so we have to know that our teachers are good and creating value.”

While data can be helpful in many circumstances, there is often context that is beyond its grasp.

“Not everything valuable can be measured, and not everything that can be measured is valuable,” Reckford said.

Greenblatt agreed that although data can provide key insights, it fails to provide the human aspect.

“If you fall prey to the call to data, you often lose sight of the bigger picture,” he said. “We support our politics with stories, stories, stories, to humanize the work and make it accessible.”

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