Partner Perspectives: Patrick Gaspard, President & CEO, Center for American Progress

In the video above, get to know Patrick Gaspard, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Center for American Progress. A lifelong organizer, Patrick has had an incredibly distinguished career at the nexus of politics, public service, and philanthropy. From his most recent appointment to President Biden’s Advisory Council on African Diaspora Engagement in the United States to his former roles as ambassador to South Africa, a senior Obama White House official, executive director of the Democratic National Committee, and president of the Open Society Foundations, Patrick brings a wealth of expertise to lead CAP in the pursuit of a more equitable society and a stronger democracy. Now, as the organization celebrates 20 years, Patrick is spearheading its path forward to tackle the most urgent challenges of today across climate, healthcare, technology, equity, policy, and beyond. Patrick and the team at CAP began a partnership with Orr Group in 2022 to design, strategize, and implement a reinvigorated fundraising strategy to amplify its philanthropic work and sector reach, and have expanded our partnership along the way to provide talent support, leadership, and capacity to sustain and grow its fundraising efforts. Get a glimpse into Patrick’s impactful career, hear about his ambitious vision for CAP and the progressive movement as a whole, and explore the results of our ongoing partnership together in the video above.


5 days ago

- Welcome. Hi, I'm Craig Shelley. Welcome to this latest edition of our Partner Perspective series. The best part of our jobs is we get to work with lots of great leaders and learn from them every day. This series allows us to share those insights and share those leaders with all of you. I'm super excited today to have with us Patrick Gaspard, the President and CEO of the Center for American Progress really has a rich background across labor, electoral politics, public service, philanthropy. Jus
t prior to, to CAP was the, the president of the Open Society Foundations and held key positions in the Obama administration, including serving as the US Ambassador to the Republic of South Africa, and now at the Center for American Progress leads an impactful organization that's at the intersection of all of that. And maybe most importantly, like me, he grew up in New York City. So welcome, Patrick. Happy to have you with us today. Thanks for being here, - Craig. Thanks for inviting me on and t
hanks for your partnership and let's go New York. - Exactly. So, you know, so reflecting on this career that you've had, which is just amazing, it's had so much impact. I think really the central connection is, is is really been driving change, lifting people up. Where do you see the biggest opportunities to drive change today and how would you characterize kind of the overall health of the nonprofit sector? - Thanks. Thanks for that question, Craig. I, I'm a radical optimist and always think th
at the ecosystem that I'm working in is going to continue to drive progress, drive it hard, drive it with integrity. But I will say that it's really important right now for nonprofit leaders to really assess and be darned honest about the environmental hazards that we are facing. The environment itself is the biggest challenge that nonprofits have. There's never been more urgency, there's never been less capacity, there's never been more burnout, and there's never been as much noise as exists to
day. It's so much easier now to access information than ever before, but it's really harder to engage with information that can actually challenge your perspective, the worldview of your teams that can get you to kind of shake up your assumptions. It's, it's easy to live in, in silos and to live in bubbles. That's true for nonprofits and it's also true for donors, though less true for donors who, let's be candid, are of a generation of an error that pays far less attention to the noise. So nonpr
ofits, in order to break through, attract donors, sustain those donors have to make sure that we are able to set our tuning forks beyond the proximity of what we're getting in the, in the hyper information bubbles that we live in. Recognizing that we live in a time when, when public policy is moving at the speed of that information, being fortunate enough to serve as, you know, kind of fellow traveler in politics and government and in philanthropy, has enabled me to really narrowly firmly focus
in on what exactly matters to move the needle, particularly for working folk and what it means to be able to use all the tools that are available to me in very tangible ways to do that work. All the tools of democracy from organizing to diplomacy on and on. I have found too often, especially when I served in philanthropy, the too many in the nonprofit sector fail to properly assess their existing strengths and to understand how to fine tune their tools to meet the moment. There are lots of oppor
tunities that will always come at us. We, when you, when I've been able to serve in the White House and you discovered that even there, the president of the United States doesn't get to set the agenda day to day, but you're in a space of reaction that's true for the nonprofit sector as well, but you can better react if you're investing in proper and appropriate scenario planning across the board. And if you're assessing your essential superpowers at the Center for American Progress, we have a ki
nd of relentless determination to bring into alignment our superpowers of policy generation, communication and outreach and advocacy in ways that are measurable, that have a set of metrics that we're able to apply to them for delivery. We're fond of saying, we don't wanna just just change the conversation, we wanna change the nation. You can only do that if you're able to have a, a kind of pragmatism about your goals. You celebrate your successes and you continue to invest back into organization
al strengths. - Yeah, that's phenomenal. And I, and I agree, I think, I think organizations can learn so much from this concept of focusing on your superpowers and I've watched you all do it at CAP and it's, I dunno, just it's been amazing to be up close to, but so as you've come, you know, this is the time in the world, the time in the ecosystem, so much transition at the same time you're coming to CAP is really only, its, you know, I think third CEO. So even in in some ways always reinventing
itself as an organization. What have been your biggest challenges specific to being the CEO of CAP? - Well, God, those are, those are innumerable. So this past year we celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Center for American Progress and it was just a wonderful opportunity to kind of be nostalgic to mark the journey and the victories along the way and to make sure that we're celebrating those who made those victories possible from staff to our interns, to the elected officials that we're fortu
nate enough to partner with, to organizations like the org group that have helped us to really strengthen our brick and mortar operations here. But when, you know, an anniversaries are a wonderful opportunity not just to be nostalgic, but to also project into the future. What, what do the next few years look like? What does the next decade mean? What are the existential challenges that we're rallying to face or that we are insufficiently built to address? So I've been trying to determine in this
period whether or not CAP is fit for purpose in our research work and in our communications work as well. That invariably leads to some really tough decision making where you've gotta put on your, your sorting hat and lift up a set of priorities or make a some tough decisions to go in a different direction after assessing work that you've done in a particular field for many years, hopefully with success, but at other times in ways that demonstrate the inability to move forward with the coalitio
n with on an issue. And, and you have to understand that you have to live and sustain to fight another day on sustenance. I also became the leader of this organization during the pandemic, which of course led to a profound economic downturn, some real anxiety. It, it led to a shrinking in the donor space and a good deal more conservatism with a decision that donors would make for immediate, and they're thinking about long term investments. So as we're working to build something that's more susta
inable and can ultimately attract resources at the scale that our work deserves and requires, we've had to be able to kind of take conversations to, to donors about the key challenges that we're having in climate on economic inclusion, on the expansion of healthcare, on fundamentals, questions of rights and justice with an appreciation that many of us are feeling the fragility of our democratic institutions right now. And that there's a, a keen determination that many donors have to really put t
heir chips in the center of the table to bet on democracy. And we had to find ways to make certain that we were speaking to that need renewance of urgency post January 6th, et cetera, on those bets. And I, I think that we've managed to do that. We did that with the help of the Orr Group that really helped us to identify more effective and efficient ways to manage strategic engagement, particularly in the space of major gifts prospects and high level philanthropic investments that all required a
different set of questions and responses from an organization that in truth grew considerably over the years without considering whether or not that that growth always met the needs of the political hour. - Yeah, no, that, that, that makes a lot, I think you're right. I mean the, the urgency is opening up lots of opportunities, but it's also making us necessarily more accountable for what we're doing with philanthropic investments that we receive because we need outcomes and we need them today.
So yeah, I couldn't agree more. Talking a little bit about the relationship our organizations have had, I guess we've been working together almost about two years now. You know, we started sort of helping evaluate fundraising strategy, then we did a lot of work with you sort of implementing that strategy and sort of making the culture changes needed. We've done some executive recruiting work, but I'm curious like, I mean, what have you seen the impact of at CAP of, of working with Orr Group? - W
ell, there, there, there are a number of things that you've enabled us to, to do that we would not have been able to, to do if we just tried to organize our research reset internally without external supports. I, I'd say that the first most important thing that you did early on in conversations with us is to give us the ability to do comparative analysis, to hold up a mirror from the world that we could look at ourselves in, that we could look through to under, to, to, to better understand the l
andscape that other nonprofits in, in we're inhabiting to better give us a sense of the perspective of for-profit leaders who are making charitable contributions, who are making strategic philanthropic contributions to understand the, the questions that animate their work and their giving. And to help us to better see where we were ahead of the curve, where we were perhaps using practices and tools that worked well for a previous generation of leaders, but did not necessarily suit the, the, the,
the current ecosystem that we need to be able to effectively operate in. So there's a way that you gave us a kind of high level telescoping out of the world as it is today and then beyond that you and your colleagues at or rolled up your sleeves, got into the trenches with us and a, and enabled us to get a real granular sense of why we were successful with certain types of investors, why there was still significant room to grow with other partners. How we close those gaps and those deficits and
what it means to actually take up the notion of relationship building in the work that we do with investors as opposed to what traditionally happens is when you're trying to meet your goals quarter by quarter towards the end of the year, where a number of urgent discussions and requests go out without the work that folks like me who have organizing in their DNA appreciate, which is to be in correspondence in conversation over time to make certain that as we have success or even as we have chall
enges, we're communicating that to our partners and to other prospects in ways that enables them to see the impact of their investment or to make them understand how they are built into a set of considerations that we take up in our advocacy work or even the intentionality of our coalition tables, the networks that we build and the kinds of questions that we bring to the White House, to Capitol Hill and to state capitals as well. The, it it, it may, it may sound like an astonishing thing to, to
say, but with Orr's help, we went from making a set of sometimes seemingly random requests to being able to sort those into actual partnered relationships across the board. That's not to suggest that we didn't have strategy, we didn't have intentionality, we didn't have structure before, or of course we had all of those, but we can kind of better see the umbilical cords from one conversation to the next, from one set of relationships to the next in a way that enables you to pull back and to actu
ally see a live network. So it's, it's just been just phenomenal. As we've hired new team members into our development shop, you've helped us to think about what it means to sustain the culture so that we're not recreating the wheel every time we have new leadership in place in the organization. So all of that's been rather invaluable. - Oh, we, I mean, we appreciate the opportunity to, to do it. It's been a real privilege to work with you and, and, and the whole team. So, so particularly at thi
s moment in time. So thank you. I guess just maybe last thought, like what advice would you give to other nonprofit leaders, other CEOs out there for what, what should they be thinking about? - You know, so it is really easy to kind of get into your organization, do the hard work of learning that organization and then operating in the world through the, the, the perspective, the kind of engineering of the org that you're in. We live at a time now where the challenges are so extraordinary, so epi
c, where information is moving so rapidly that it's impossible to have a kind of go it alone program for any of the things that we are trying to accomplish or things that we're trying to land in spaces of public policy or in public communication. And all of us are far stronger together, and we have to operate as nonprofit leaders with a tremendous sense of humility and appreciation that we don't know everything there is to be known in our fields. Our staffs, irrespective of how extraordinary the
y are, can always be strengthened by partnership, by a little bit of competition and by the perspectives of others who may not necessarily be entirely aligned with us in this pluralistic society. We're in a moment where so many of the assumptions that we've made about our institutions have kind of been torn asunder. Communities are afraid at the edges. There are cleavages in this nation that were unmanageable to, unimaginable to me and so many others short while ago. We don't overcome those chal
lenges inside of our own trenches. And you know, I know that for me personally, being able to work with so many outstanding partners and being able to bring in the, the kind of rugged professionalism of partners like the Orr Group has made all the difference in the world. - Thank you. I really appreciate you spending some time with us today. I really appreciate the opportunity to work with you. I know our community will appreciate hearing your thoughts, so thank you so much Patrick and everyone
else. Thank you. And just watch the space. We'll have more leaders to share with you soon. Thank you.