How Nonprofit Collaboration Drives Impact
This is a guest post written by Julien Burns, Director of Impact and Innovation at Fission Strategy. There, he helps clients mobilize their communities through creative digital storytelling. He has a passion for social justice and was an attendee of the 2016 Collaborative + Classy Awards.
How meta was the Collaborative + Classy Awards?
It’s fitting that a company that made its name enabling organizations to crowdsource their funding puts on a social innovation conference by crowdsourcing social innovators. The result was a unique mix of organizations who work in different regions on different issues and take diverse approaches to their work. Conservationists using drones to track poaching rubbed shoulders with weightlifters raising awareness about breast cancer. Despite their differences, the attendees came with an openness that allowed for some uncommon cross-sector sharing.
At the same time, some hard questions were asked. Stephen Pratt opened his session, Performance Measurement: Drowning in Data?, with a slide on the poverty rate in 1985: 14 percent. He then flipped to the poverty rate 30 years later: 15 percent. Based on the instant poll he took of the audience after, few people were surprised. Pratt argued that the discrepancy between this lack of progress and the successes touted by individual poverty-alleviation organizations over that period was the result of a failure to account for context in program design.
Organizations who approach their work in silos have worked at cross purposes, mitigating impact, he argued. I think that declining real wages and government policies hostile to the poor have likely played a role as well, but nevertheless a big question had been asked: what is our impact together?
I found this particularly relevant given the crowd-sourced nature of the conference. The attendees were brought together by Classy, but not under any pretense of a roadmap for the sector. The Collaborative was a shared effort to drive solutions from the ground-up versus the top-down. The questions were, then, what does ending blindness look like when it’s accomplished by a remote diagnosis mobile app, a flying eye hospital, and virtual-reality-based training, each with different technologies and program models rather than a single solution filtering down from, say, the World Health Organization?
Our Collective Work
Just as many organizations find it uncomfortable to decentralize their fundraising and shift to a peer-to-peer model, there may be some discomfort in this paradigm shift. There is also a lot of potential in it. What is critical is that we as a sector don’t rest on the laurels of this innovation and fail to ask that big question—what is the impact we’re having together? When you add up all of the bright ideas and passionate individuals that filled the warehouse at Cruiseport Boston last week, what’s the world that’s created?
Classy took an important step towards grappling with that with their announcement of their new product offering, Progress. This database of nonprofit and social enterprise impact provides an unprecedented cross-sectional look at the successes of these organizations and the ways they measure impact. There is a long way to go to shift the sector towards rigorous evaluation and transparency, but it was refreshing to hear Classy, along with presenters like Jacob Harold from GuideStar and Kevin Bolduc from the Center for Effective Philanthropy espouse these ideals.
As someone who spends every day helping social good organizations to develop winning campaigns and incorporate continuous measurement and optimization, I know how hard it can be to evaluate real impact. Fission Strategy, where I work, specializes in building communities and movements where ideas like influencer engagement, brand loyalty, and supporter mobilization are the metrics of success. But even in this seemingly intangible work, there is measurable impact.
At the end of the day, the organizations who attended the Collaborative don’t innovate for the sake of innovation, they innovate to make the most impact possible. I look forward to better understanding, investigating, and celebrating our collective impact at future Collaboratives.