Stanford Social Innovation Review Commentary on barriers to targeted collective action among non-profits

“Collective Impact” by John Kania and Mark Kramer
The authors point out that collective action to create change on a community level is a very tough challenge for non-profit organizations. Funders tend to choose one organization to fund for a particular task, and have difficulties dealing with multiple organizations. The competition process has each organization highlighting results for which it can claim direct credit.

In short, the non-profit sector most frequently operates using an approach that we call isolated impact. It is an approach oriented toward finding and funding a solution embodied within a single organization, combined with the hope that the most effective organizations will grow or replicate to extend their impact more widely. Funders search for more effective interventions as if there were a cure for failing schools that only needs to be discovered, in the way that medical cures are discovered in laboratories. As a result of this process, nearly 1.4 million non-profits try to invent independent solutions to major social problems, often working at odds with each other and exponentially increasing the perceived resources required to make meaningful progress. Recent trends have only reinforced this perspective. The growing interest in venture philanthropy and social entrepreneurship, for example, has greatly benefited the social sector by identifying and accelerating the growth of many high-performing non-profits, yet it has also accentuated an emphasis on scaling up a few select organizations as the key to social progress.

…The problem with relying on the isolated impact of individual organizations is further compounded by the isolation of the non-profit sector. Social problems arise from the interplay of governmental and commercial activities, not only from the behavior of social sector organizations. As a result, complex problems can be solved only by cross-sector coalitions that engage those outside the non-profit sector.

They point out that not all social problems require collective action. Where a problem is technical, or where need simply exceeds capacity, the response can be more simple. But where they are complex, where the answers are not clear, then an approach they label as “adaptive” is needed. In such cases, collaborative and collective action is required, often by non-profits, but also often requiring changes and collaboration of institutional and private sectors. Funders which support adaptive approaches and collective action are rare and valuable. They also point out the need for a new kind of non-profit organization to assemble and coordinate the elements necessary for collective action.

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