Friday, May 13, 2011

More than Collaboration

Or: What This Really is All About

Something I've been giving a lot of thought to recently is the emerging buzzword (or possibly well-established buzzword), "collaboration." Collaboration seems to be everywhere in the nonprofit sector, and for good reason. I see collaboration and it's often-partnered friend "knowledge sharing" (yay for jargon!) as the real way forward to solve a lot of serious problems and help a lot of people who need it.

Collaboration can take many forms. At VPP, we are deep into collaboration through our youthCONNECT initiative, which has brought together six DC-area nonprofits to work together to try and help 20,000 youth over five years. Pretty big stuff, and clearly we'll need a lot of help to do it, not just from our nonprofit partners, but other funders and government officials. youthCONNECT is funded in part through the Social Innovation Fund, which is supporting a lot of similar collaborative networks across the country and helping the sector move towards a collaborative mindset.

Carol Thompson Cole, VPP's President and CEO, has written about the need for nonprofit collaboration and, most recently, the need for funder collaboration. She says that nonprofits often do not work together and society suffers because of it. Organizations--funders and nonprofits alike--can benefit from what others have learned and most problems the nonprofit sector deals with cannot be solved by one organization. Working together in a true and real way--talking with each other, sharing ideas about where organizations can fill in the gaps of others' work, developing theories of change with other organizations--can start to make a dent in these amorphous "big problems" we talk about.

I may have drunk a little too much of the Social Innovation Fund kool-aid (that's probably the nerdiest thing I've ever written), but I think this is great. Working together makes complete sense in the nonprofit sector, because the goal of the sector is to create social benefit, and that is done most effectively without competition getting in the way.

But, when I stop downing the kool-aid and take a step back, I realize that this trend toward collaboration might be bigger than I think it is. Collaboration might not be an end to itself, but merely a stop along the way of a longer journey. I think this is really about re-defining our economic priorities.

FSG Social Impact Consultant has put out a lot of research on collaboration. They have a lot of good stuff on what they call "Collective Impact," "Catalytic Philanthropy," and "Strategic Evaluation" (all of which expands upon the ideas in this post), but what excites me the most is their work on "Shared Value." Shared Value is the idea that corporations should integrate societal needs into their bottom-line business planning, and that by addressing social needs, corporations can actually benefit financially. It is a radical shift from the typical "Corporate Social Responsibility" work that is usually done by companies. This type of business strategy has companies like Nestlé working with farmers in Latin America to create better irrigation systems for their crops, ensuring a better product for Nestlé and a more stable community for the farmers. This collaborative approach creates value for all parties involved.

This puts a new spin on things for me. To bring business into the mix as a true collaboration partner, not just a writer of checks, really shows how powerful collaboration can be. To have nonprofits, governments and corporations working together under a common theory of change with universal goals and measurement indicators will shift the way our society works. Instead of having a three-way segmented economic landscape--with corporations making money at the expense of society, forcing nonprofits to clean up the mess using money made by the corporations, all while the government oversees everything to make sure no one gets too far out of line--it can be one integrated system with one goal: Make the world a better place.

I "attended" (listened? watched?) a recent webinar (pdf) on Shared Value that had several representatives of FSG's clients on it. In the question and answer session, Tony Kingsbury of Dow Chemicals said that government, nonprofits and business all had an important role to play in creating shared value. The government encourages and enables innovation; nonprofits identify social needs and target markets; and businesses create innovative products to address the needs. (I would argue that government and nonprofits can also play a role in addressing needs through innovation, but that's a discussion for another time.) Extrapolating from Kingsbury's points, you see that each sector has its own role to fill in a collaborative effort. One isn't inherently better than the other, nor is one more adept at creating change. Each is a tool to call on to help get things done. The same with financing: Philanthropic dollars, government dollars, shareholder investment, venture capital all have different places for different things and should be used in the most effective way possible.

Jonathan Greenblatt, in a recent Huffington Post piece on social impact bonds (another very cool tool), referred to this new type of economic collaboration as an "Impact Economy":
[In] an Impact forces are leveraged to enable private gain but also to drive public benefit. In an Impact Economy, cross-sector collaboration is not the exception but the rule, a new mode of serving the national interest.

This is where I think the sector is going, where society is going. I think this is what this is really all about. If we can get to a place where everyone is working together to try and create shared value to benefit society, the world will be a better place.

Disclaimer: The postings on this site are my own and do not represent the positions, strategies or opinions of Venture Philanthropy Partners


  1. Great post, Jeff. Thank you for highlighting FSG's key approaches, which we believe, all require collaboration. Many thanks to you and VPP for all of your great work!

    -Carrie Benjamin

  2. This was enlightening. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Controversy comes with the common belief that volunteer services should be made freely, not for monetary compensation. Another concern is that people might volunteer to help for the money reward at the end of the service contract and not as a freely given gesture of good will. That paid volunteers might not connect emotionally and socially with the people they are helping.