The famous ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, is credited with saying: "Necessity is the mother of invention." This profound statement was true during his lifetime about 2500 years ago and remains just as true today. In fact, this was the theme for Investors Bank’s 10th annual Nonprofit Conference on October 8th.

The tone starts at the top.

Kevin Cummings, President and CEO of Investors Bank, opened the conference with warm welcoming remarks, offering thoughtful insights into the essential role played by the nonprofit community in our state.

The morning program began with Michele Siekerka, President and CEO of NJBIA, setting the stage by reminding the nonprofit leaders in the room that they do not have to reinvent the wheel to be game changers.  Instead, they need to learn from the best practices of other successful innovators.

Keeping the focus on innovation, transformation, and invention, Michele was followed by a panel of game changers who leveraged creativity and flexibility to make a significant impact on their communities.

The lessons learned were powerful – and yet very basic. The four panelists shared a number of common themes as they discussed their personal stories and described what went well and what did not in their quest for innovation. It was interesting to note that none of them were well-known when they got started in the nonprofit space; they didn’t have power or great wealth; nor did they command any special influence.

But nonetheless, they have been extraordinarily successful in accomplishing their missions.

The four featured speakers, each credited as being the founder of a major concept or organization, included:

Jen Miller - Jen launched the idea of Maplecrest Moves Charities s she was looking for a way to help nonprofit organizations transport goods, such as food, clothing, diapers, household items, toiletries or furniture, from one location to another.  A van and driver are supplied at no charge to the nonprofits from the Maplecrest Lincoln and Ford dealership;

Nicole Whitfield - Nicole and her husband aggressively fought for their son’s rights to equal opportunities as a child with autism. In doing so they created an organization that grew from their basement to a $2.5m nonprofit. The Special Parent Advocacy Group (SPAG) has evolved into a holistic program providing many services to include Summer Camps, After School services, and weekend events for families and their children who make up the special needs community;

Mindy Scheier - Scheier, a fashion designer, found a way to create fun and attractive apparel in order to serve a special needs community (estimated to represent about one billion people) that requires adaptive clothing. Along the way she inspired well-known brands such as Tommy Hilfiger, Kohl’s, Nike and Amazon to do the same;

John Harmon, Sr. - John founded and serves as President of the African American New Jersey Chamber of Commerce where he identifies strategic alliances and builds deep and meaningful relationships in government and in the corporate world. His impact is felt as he assumes responsibility for ensuring that the African American community in the diverse state of NJ is respected for its ability to add value, be relevant, and make change happen. He does this by offering unique educational and networking events, Youth Mentorship and Entrepreneur Programs, Training and Job Readiness Programs, by implementing partnerships to increase contracting with women and minority-owned businesses, and by assisting in developing public policy strategies.

So what did they do differently?    

While the stories they shared were very different, the outcome was the same: each of the panelists found an innovative solution to a significant challenge impacting the community.

To do this, they needed to be executors; that means they not only understood the issues and obstacles, but they were able to devise a solution. And then, most importantly, they acted on their ideas.

Each of these innovators is skilled at working without being deterred by the encumbrance of limits. Instead, they were determined to “figure it out” rather than give in to defeat. They demonstrated, through their actions as leaders, the importance of being bold, being a risk taker, and being disruptive, relentless and focused.

The results speak for themselves.

Special thank you to Sandy Broughton, her team, and everyone at Investors Bank for hosting another wonderful nonprofit conference.