Every ULI Fall Meeting raises the bar for the next one, and our 2013 meeting in Chicago did just that—with more than 5,500 members and guests in attendance, record levels of sponsorship from the top companies in the industry, and three days of programming that included many standing-room-only sessions.
We heard from widely recognized leaders, including longtime industry icon Sam Zell, who discussed how his upbringing shaped his decision to incorporate calculated risks into every business decision; and former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who called for an increased focus on improving public education to strengthen the nation’s global competitiveness. We were also introduced to up-and-coming entrepreneurs such as to self-described “gangsta gardener” Ron Finley, who started growing vegetables in patches of open space in South Los Angeles to provide healthy produce and communal gathering places to underserved neighborhoods; and to self-described “launch agent” Elton Rivas, who used crowdfunding to support the first-ever, highly successful One Spark street festival in downtown Jacksonville, Florida (Urban Land, July/August 2013).
The clear message from both the well-known and not-so-well-known: true impact is achieved by doing, not talking. And, increasingly, impact is our watchword. ULI Chairman Lynn Thurber has made enhancing—and documenting—the Institute’s impact one of her top priorities. This means building an organization that explicitly links its mission to impact on the ground. Three significant movements are underway at ULI that underpin this approach: 1) the ascendance of the District Councils and their important role in generating content for the Institute; 2) our renewed emphasis on strategic investment in technology to connect and integrate our member networks; and 3) our new approach to managing fundraising through the ULI Foundation.
First, District Councils. More and more, ULI’s mission is delivered through our District Councils. Our investment in high-quality staff, leadership development, and locally generated content has harnessed a powerful engine for engagement and impact on land use and development issues.
We now have 51 District Councils in the Americas, 14 in Europe (where they are called National Councils), and seven in Asia. District Councils are increasingly taking a more regional approach, working together to address issues of common concern.
The Washington, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston District Councils have started an exchange program in which members visit each other’s cities to tour new projects and learn about markets. This level of collaboration is very promising for the future of the District Council program, which will involve a far more prominent role in generating content for the organization.
Second, technology and member communications. Fortunately, the economic recovery has allowed us to invest in the talent and systems required to support a broad, web-based member network. We have in place a highly skilled team, including a new chief technology officer; in addition, many cost-effective tools have become widely available to facilitate social engagement and content management. This commitment to member service is evidenced with the launch of our new e-commerce system, and the video library now available at uli.org, which includes key sessions from the Fall Meeting. Over the next several months, watch for a series of continuous improvements to the online ULI experience.
Third, fundraising. To maintain a strong program for our current members, and to continue to expand to new areas where our mission is relevant and our potential impact is strong, we are continuing to diversify our revenue structure. For the purposes of funding research and education, this has meant a meaningful shift in emphasis from the commercial side of ULI (such as revenue from meeting registrations and dues) to the philanthropic side (support from the ULI Foundation). The best evidence of this is the proportion of ULI’s content that is paid for by the ULI Foundation. In 2003, funds from the Foundation covered about one-fourth of the costs of the research and education program; this year, we will rely on the Foundation to cover half.
Over the past six months, we’ve been working to strike a better balance between commercial funding streams and philanthropic fundraising so that we can better respond to potential donors and supporters. In addition to my role as ULI’s chief executive, I have assumed the responsibility of serving as president of the Foundation; and, our fundraising team has been expanded to better leverage all of our fundraising vehicles and develop stronger relationships with outside foundations. This effort has shown strong early results, with a significant new commitment to ULI from the Kresge Foundation, centered on helping cities become more resilient to the impacts of climate change and severe weather.
As we close out 2013 and look to next year, there is a palpable sense of progress and momentum around the Institute. From a content perspective, this excitement was evident throughout the Fall Meeting, particularly in discussions regarding our new Building Healthy Places Initiative, which sparked thoughtful dialogue about ULI’s leadership role in connecting land use and healthy living.
In addition to the enthusiasm over our new initiative, the renewed optimism about the Institute is reflected in a steady pattern of membership growth. ULI just passed the 30,000 mark in total membership headcount, marking a significant recovery from the financial crisis. The benefits of this growth are felt around the Institute in increasing revenues, but—more important—in the increase in human capital available to deliver ULI’s mission. In these promising new times for ULI, our impact will ultimately be measured by what we accomplish as an organization of doers.