Tag Archives: collective impact

Scaling for Impact

Hello, there.

Still me, somewhat obsessed with scaling and nonprofit impact.

There are two new resources I want to share about scaling: a piece from the Social Impact Exchange about how collaborations can scale impact, and the video and proceedings from the annual conference on scale (see, it’s not just me–there’s a whole scale conference!).

But, first, some reflections on why I think scale is so important.

Often, when I’m sitting around a conference room talking with nonprofit leaders (usually, the CEO/Executive Director, the Vice-Presidents or equivalent, and maybe some program director-types), the conversation quickly turns to how tired they are and how overworked and how stressed.

There’s a lot of gallows humor like that, among social workers, and some of it, I know, is the product of unhealthy organizational cultures and attitudes that equate ‘busy’ with ‘good’ or ‘worthy’ or ‘noble’.

The quotation marks hopefully convey my skepticism about that calculus.

But a lot of it is real.

There are many nonprofit employees who make tremendous sacrifices, rarely seeing their own families, neglecting their health, giving up friendships and hobbies, because they care so deeply about the people they’re serving and the organizations they’re running.

I respect them and appreciate them and value them. I try to support them.

But I also think we have to be honest about the perennial elephant in the room:

We’re doing all of this for relatively little impact.

That’s not at all to say that our efforts don’t matter. That’s not the kind of impact I’m talking about.

Of course, every child whose life is improved from child abuse prevention services, every adult with a mental illness who gains a new measure of health, every person who finds a good job, every light bulb that goes off in the mind of a struggling youth, every policy win advanced by a health advocate, every program developed to fight homelessness…

it all matters.

But, measured against the scale of the problems against which we are arrayed, the size of our impact can often pale.

And that’s not an imbalance that can be corrected by working harder–or even smarter–within our organizations. If it was, we would already have done it, right?

No, what we need are new structures, scaled to be capable of delivering the impact that the urgency of our problems demands.

We need collective commitment to well-defined problems. We need data that can point us in the right direction. We need collaborations across sectors to get us out of our silos.

We need scale.

It won’t make us get home in time for every after-school activity. It might not make us fit in our 30 minutes of exercise every day. It certainly won’t take away the stresses that come from navigating the messy realities of human lives.

But it can make all of those efforts echo more loudly, and stretch further, and last longer.

And that matters, I think.

Backbone Organizations for Advocacy

So I’m kind of taking the easy way out today.

Basically, what I want you to do is read this series of posts about the importance of backbone organizations for collective impact, written from the perspective of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation, on the Stanford Social Innovation Review site.

My only contribution, to add any value to what they have shared, is that we need these organizations–and these roles–so badly in advocacy.

We need organizations, in each of our issues, but, more importantly, across our sectors, wherever anyone is working for justice and health and peace, that articulate an overarching vision and help us craft strategies likely to take us there. We need funders who will encourage us to pursue aligned activities and will become comfortable with a ‘contribution, not attribution’ mindset that provides the freedom for us to meaningfully partner. We need shared measurement and enhanced capacity to assess where we stand, in relation to where we want to be. We need investments in building public will, so that we don’t ever see ‘the public’ as the problem, and so that we’re not asking policymakers to outrun their constituents in order to advance policies that meet our collective needs. We need entities that can build bridges to real money–the kinds of public and private dollars needed to build infrastructure that can support a movement.

Backbone organizations do that. And we need them.

But, too often, they’re labeled ‘overhead’, along with the critically important functions they fulfill. And, for want of relatively small investments in capacity and connectivity, we pay long-term prices in compromised effectiveness.

One of the most fascinating parts of the posts is where the evaluators asked those in the field–those for whom these organizations are being ‘backbones’–what difference these entities make.

In response, actors said things like, [without them] “even more decisions in our community would be made by a small group of folks,” “communities would be simply in survival mode,” “the public wouldn’t have near the understanding of the challenges,” and “there wouldn’t be any coordinated program at all.” As one stakeholder said, “If they weren’t asking the right questions, we wouldn’t be [where we are today.]”

They’re talking about engagement and translating issues for public consumption and prodding towards benchmarks. The difference means clarity of purpose and common direction and greater comfort understanding one’s own niche in the larger field.

Capacitated well and positioned correctly within their networks, backbone organizations make it possible for those in the field to be who and what they need to be–advocates, organizers, mobilizers, fundraisers, analysts–and to do so in a seemingly-natural concert that, in the aggregate, begins to approach collective impact.

This doesn’t mean that all is smooth and, certainly, these posts are honest about ‘learning in public’ and acknowledging some of the ongoing challenges, around data (and how to share them), communications for public will-building, identification of the best policy objectives, and the continuous work to break down silos and help people to play their own roles, towards common goals (which, truly, is way more difficult than the ubiquitous task of ‘getting everyone on the same page’).

One of the insights for me was the discussion about the characteristics of individual leaders within backbone organizations, a reflection of the truth that organizations are, after all, collections of personalities, and that individuals matter a lot, even on a big scale.

Many of these key characteristics are, not surprisingly, related to elements of advocacy capacity, since backbone organizations are, in large part, an investment in the collective capacity of a field. These leaders are visionary, results-oriented, collaborative relationship builders, who are focused but adaptive, charismatic and influential communicators, politic, and humble.

They make more good possible.

And we need them, especially since advocacy is really about how we reach collective impact, using policy as the specific lever for change.

So, please, go read the posts, and I’d love to hear what you think. Do you have backbone organizations on which you can rely in your work? How do they function, compared to the roles outlined here? Do you play a backbone role, to any extent? What would convince external stakeholders–especially those with money–of the importance of entities that can help us harness our tremendous aggregate capacities towards common aims?

And what would the world look like if we did?