Investing in Collaborative Systems Change in Turbulent Times

  • By Robert Albright, August 8, 2017

Philanthropic funders have a unique role to play when leading in complexity and uncertainty.

Visit your favorite news site or social media account, and you’ll likely see headlines and stories that only add to a growing sense of uncertainty and turbulence in our social and political dialogue. Whether it’s disagreements about economic opportunity, access to quality healthcare, climate change, or any other pressing issue, the level of polarization at a national, state, and local level has left many people wondering how they can have an impact and lead effectively during these challenging times.

Philanthropic funders have a unique role to play when leading in complexity and uncertainty. The role of funders – and others in a community working together to tackle intractable problems during turbulent times – were top of mind for attendees at the 2017 Collective Impact Convening in Boston at the end of May. More than 600 leaders from 40 U.S. states and 20 countries came to the convening to discuss challenges and opportunities for achieving systems and population-level change through cross-sector collaboration.

During the May 25 closing plenary, “The Future of Collective Impact in Turbulent Times,” attendees heard a conversation with Kat Allen (Franklin Communities that Care Coalition), Tawanna Black (Northside Funders Group), Steve Patrick (Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions), Heather Peeler (Grantmakers for Effective Organizations), and Ursula Wright (FSG). Their discussion highlighted notable themes that have particular implications for funders:

  • Prioritize general operating support, responsive funds, and multi-year grants: During turbulent times, funders should not lose sight of some foundational elements of effective philanthropy, such as: providing general operating support that allows nonprofits to focus on their core work and does not put an artificial cap on overhead expenses; setting aside responsive funds to rapidly meet unexpected needs that might not come up during existing grantmaking cycles; and investing in multiyear grants to support a constellation of partners working to achieve long-term systems change. Many speakers at the convening underscored the long-term nature of the issues that collective impact initiatives are working to address, and the critical role that funders can play in supporting backbone infrastructure and investing in both programmatic and systems strategies.
  • Put equity and community engagement at the center of collaborative investments: As I noted in an earlier blog post, funders should build in multiple opportunities for their grantees and community members to actively engage in the collective impact planning process. For example, funders can prioritize equity and community engagement by building the capacity of (and sharing decision-making power with) grassroots organizations that are often led by people of color. These organizations are usually closest to those with lived experience and are often left out of traditional top-down planning efforts. Funders can help reverse that “grasstops only” approach by investing in and empowering community-based organizations.

There’s no ‘fixed formula’ to lead in turbulent times

Robert Albright, Collective Impact Forum

  • Actively seek out stories of grantees and community members: Funders often are not connected directly to where the unrest is real and where the pain is rising in communities. To understand the areas of greatest need in their community, funders should actively seek out and listen to grantees’ and community members’ stories of their hopes and struggles. These stories (and relationships that form through authentic engagement) matter now more than ever during these polarized times. By learning what matters most to grantees and partners, funders can then directly incorporate these community priorities in a collective impact effort.
  • Leverage social and political capital, not just financial capital: While financial capital certainly matters, funders also have other sources of capital they can leverage during uncertainty. For example, funders can use their reputational and political capital to advance equity and opportunity for all. A funder might decide to use their convening power to bring together leaders from across the political spectrum to discuss disparities in a community. Alternatively, a funder might decide to play a more active role in advocacy by aligning with other local funders on policy areas that they will inform and influence as a group.

Not surprisingly, there is no “fixed formula” to lead in turbulent times. While funders do not have a linear set of steps to follow, the good news is that there are some common principles of practice – such as investing in multi-year grants, putting equity at the center, using stories to build trust in a community, and leveraging non-financial capital – that can help cross-sector partnerships succeed. During this season of significant change and uncertainty in our communities, funders have a unique role to play in keeping these principles front and center in their work.

Robert Albright is director of programs at the Collective Impact Forum. Robert brings knowledge and experience in collective impact across a range of issue areas, including economic development, education, and health. Read more here.