The Importance of Funding Collaborative Projects to Fuel Social Change


Barbara Van Dahlen, PH.D.

Founder and President
Give An Hour


The societal issues that adversely affect our nation and our world are complex and multifaceted. Rarely can we point to one cause —or one solution —for issues such as child abuse, poverty, or hunger. Humans are complex beings. We are capable of creating great works of art and amazing advances in science and technology. But because we are complex, one size does not fit all in our efforts to alleviate suffering, encourage health and wellness, and reverse destructive or self defeating behaviors.

If we are sincere in our desire to address the issues that negatively affect our communities and our citizens, we must develop interventions that more accurately mirror the complicated reality of the challenges we face. We must embrace collective impact as a goal, and we must encourage stakeholders and funders to support and encourage this approach. Although developing, implementing, and evaluating collective impact efforts is challenging, it really is the only course of action that makes sense.

For the past 8 years I have had the honor and privilege of working with a host of compassionate and extremely talented colleagues in the veterans and military space. Together we have worked to address the needs of returning troops and their families, who for the past 12 years have shouldered the burden of the longest period of war in our nation’s history. As we know, the successful transition home for those who serve has been difficult for some and impossible for others. Despite the resources that have been mobilized and the efforts that have been launched, there are still too many service members, veterans, and military family members falling through the cracks of a system that is ill-equipped to respond to their needs.

“While many of us recognize the need for collective efforts, our ability to engage in more creative and innovative models is limited. To build such approaches, we must have partners who are willing and funders who are enlightened. Both have been hard to come by.”

If it were easy to solve the difficulties confronting our military and veteran community, if it were easy to end domestic violence in our nation, if it were easy to prevent homelessness, we would have successfully addressed these issues long ago. No single community-based organization can solve complex challenges such as these, and we cannot and should not expect our government to do so either. Each organization, each agency, each initiative must add its unique contribution to a collective effort that, over time, can create a comprehensive and integrated system that supports the continuum of care and intervention required for the problem identified.

The idea that collaboration is effective is not new. The nonprofit sector is filled with great examples of partnerships, networks, and coalitions. But according to John Kania and Mark Kramer, who wrote an influential article on this topic for the Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2011, “collective impact initiatives are distinctly different. Unlike most collaborations, collective impact initiatives involve a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants.”

While many of us who do the heavy lifting in communities across the country recognize the need for collective efforts, our ability to engage in more creative and innovative models is limited. To build such approaches we must have partners who are willing and funders who are enlightened. Both have been hard to come by.

Fortunately, it appears that some within the philanthropic community are beginning to support efforts that foster and in fact require a collective focus. Although most foundations are still reluctant to pay for infrastructure and seem to prefer short-term solutions for long-term problems, a number of innovative foundations and corporations are exploring different models. I have been especially impressed with some of our own funders—foundations and corporate partners who are excited to engage in this type of complex work. The Bristol Myers Squibb Foundation, Case Foundation, Veterans United Foundation, Walmart Foundation, Aetna, Booze Allen Hamilton, Lockheed Martin, and LHI all recognize that the type of change that we hope for can only be achieved if large-scale systems and cultures change. Change of this magnitude can occur only if several different efforts are combined and coordinated over a long period of time. These funders recognize that a successful process in this context is more like a marathon than a sprint and that we must remain focused, patient, and flexible as we proceed.

As Kania and Kramer noted so eloquently in their 2011 article, “It is no longer enough to fund an innovative solution created by a single nonprofit or to build that organization’s capacity. Instead, funders must help create and sustain the collective processes, measurement reporting systems, and community leadership that enable cross-sector coalitions to arise and thrive.”

And it is up to all of us to continue to educate and challenge those who have the potential to support or the ability to influence efforts that truly can change our world for the better.

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