Friday, March 14, 2014

New Forms Needed

This is an exciting time to be engaged in rethinking the role of funders and non-profits in catalyzing sustained positive community change. Dynamic thinkers and doers are raising provocative ideas and making strong cases for a revolution.

If you haven't yet read NPC's Tris Lumley's call for transformation in the social sector on the SSIR blog check it out now. He may have been a little over the top on this one, but I respect him for declaring:
Overall, there is a lack of meaningful accountability among funders to those they claim to help.
And there's this recent post from Jeff Bradach at The Bridgespan Group, who explains why scaling up and collective impact are better viewed as a mash up than as competing concepts. He adds to the growing chorus calling for more support for the capacity to collaborate and coordinate:
The program-centric perspective espoused by much of the social sector often undervalues the role played by organizations engaged in field-building work.
With all of this good thinking going on why am I writing about forms? Here's why. If foundations and other grant makers want to explore these ideas they need to accommodate them within their business practices. The Monitor Institute captured this very well in their Catalyzing Networks for Social Change report issued last year:
Basic grantmaking structures and mechanics, such as siloed program areas static application requirements, inhibit working ... with networks.
How does an organization that is providing what FSG would call "backbone functions" and Monitor would call "network cultivation" fill out a grant application that only wants to know how many individuals will be served by the grant?

Yet, that is exactly what such organizations are being asked to do -- even by foundations that have embraced collaboration, networks, systems change etc. While foundations are increasingly embracing new ways to catalyze change, many haven't yet designed new forms to accommodate this new way of thinking. This might prompt a cynic to wonder whether this new approach will be just a passing fad. Once the forms have changed, we'll know this new thinking will stick.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Design to Build Trust

One of the key tenants of collective impact is there needs to be capacity to facilitate the act of collaboration. The consulting firm FSG refers to this as "backbone" capacity, and often that capacity resides within an organization.

Today while working with leaders in Lorain County who are forging a collaboration to create more economic opportunity for single moms I was asked a very good question: How do you design an effective backbone?

In some of its early collective impact work, FSG described six different kinds of backbone organizations and noted that there are a multitude of designs that can be used to perform the key functions required to facilitate collaborations. While the FSG descriptions are helpful, I found myself giving a much simpler (and perhaps overly simplistic) answer: Design to build trust.

Stakeholders involved in a collaboration need to trust that:

  • Their peers won't take advantage of them for participating in the collaboration.
  • Funders will value the work they do within the collaboration.
  • The "backbone" will create value for their organization.
  • The collaboration process will empower them to do things that they cannot do on their own.
If the design and behavior of the backbone generates suspicion and doubt, participation in the collaboration will be reluctant and limited. Distrust results in coblaboration, not collaboration.

How to design a backbone that will build trust varies from collaboration to collaboration. But one sage piece of advice I've picked up is this: Trust is first built through one-on-one relationships more than it is in group settings. The servant leader at the helm of a backbone must take the time to understand the perspectives and priorities of each of the key players within the collaboration. That understanding is difficult to develop in group settings. Organizations participating in a new collaboration often see themselves as competitors for funding with the others at the collaboration table. Or they may not even know some of the stakeholders at the table. (Does the librarian know the workforce development director?) Neither competitors nor strangers are eager to share in large gatherings.

An effective backbone needs to be designed so it has the time required to build trust one-on-one with stakeholders long before it is expected to start producing results; and more importantly it needs a leader who can build that trust.