American corporations, individuals and foundations gave over $425 billion to universities, cultural institutions, hospitals, and other nonprofit organizations last year, including significant funding hoping to address some of the biggest challenges we face across the country and around the globe — from climate change to homelessness. And yet, we have not made substantial progress on most of these systemic issues. That has to change.
The truth is the most critical and pressing systemic challenges our nation and our world are facing are too large and too complex to be solved by any individual organization working alone. But most funding flows to individual organizations. This mismatch is a key reason why progress too often stalls. To effect lasting, system-level change, funders must increase their support for coordinated, collaborative efforts — and demand no less from their grantees.
With decades of grantmaking experience between us, we decided to do the research to find evidence-based essentials that networks and coalitions need to make real progress toward meaningful, sustainable goals. Dell Technologies and 100Kin10, a network focused on addressing the nation's STEM teacher shortage, partnered to examine how to create and fund the kind of collective or networked efforts that can spark lasting change. This extensive analysis of successful, coalition-based social change efforts uncovered four "design essentials," elements that each effort needed to succeed.
Here is what we learned:
It's not enough to have a shared purpose. It needs to be specific. No organization or coalition can address every issue at once. That’s why aligning on a specific vision and purpose across your coalition is essential. Just look at the Freedom to Marry campaign, which built its Civil Marriage Collaborative around raising funds in support of building a state-to-state movement with one unifying cause: the right for gay and lesbian couples to marry. Before approaching funders, the leaders of Freedom to Marry first made sure they were aligned on that goal and then pitched funders based on it (rather than in support of individual programs). There are other creative ways to make sure your shared purpose and your funding are connected. From the Ground Up, a redevelopment project in Milwaukee's Menomonee Valley, raised $25 million for a nonprofit entity that the entire region created for the purpose of fundraising for a wider group of organizations, all of which shared an interest in the redevelopment and then had shared access to the capital.
2. Investing time and resources in trust-building pays off. Building trust between network partners takes time and patience. But without that you'll find it much harder to align on a vision and execute it. One network that did a great job of creating trust between partners is RE-AMP, a Midwest-based coalition of more than a hundred and thirty organizations across eight states with a goal of reducing regional global warming emissions by 80 percent. To build trust among organizations that come from a variety of perspectives RE-AMP offers workshops to mitigate tensions and interpersonal challenges and facilitate regular opportunities for working groups to meet face-to-face.
Building trust with the communities you serve is also a key part of success. Co-Impact, a new global model housed at the Rockefeller Foundation that connects philanthropists with one another and with social change leaders around scalable, proven solutions, makes sure philanthropists meet with other sector leaders to build trust among all parties, including community representatives. The investments both organizations made will help them work through challenges and get results that would otherwise be nearly impossible.
3. Expect at least some failure. Putting pressure on a huge collaborative effort to succeed immediately is not an effective way to lead. Bringing people together in this context means changing your perspective on failure. Namely, failure should be viewed as a short-term bump — it's often these bumps that cause critical self-reflection and learning, which is crucial to the long-term success of your network. The Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) works on high-risk research projects that often don’t have any near-term payoff. But this challenge is part of the success of the projects. Without DARPA's willingness to embrace failure, we wouldn't have inventions like GPS.
4. Use incentives to foster collaboration. Networks don't happen on their own — in order to push collaboration, there need to be stakes. In our research, we found that every successful, coordinated effort incentivized its partners (though they often used different means to do so). For example, the National Science Foundation (NSF) can revoke funding if collaboration does not work, which encourages commitment and coordination from members. The Sustainable Apparel Coalition uses transparency among coalition members as a tool to incentivize positive activity. Their HIGG index, which measures and scores how sustainable a company or product is, shows members how partners (and competitors) are making their supply chain more sustainable.
While all networked organizations seeking to catalyze systemic change should include these four elements/areas, a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. There are also flexible, "design considerations" we discovered that come into play. Unlike the essentials, these considerations are aspects often found in successful social change efforts that should be tailored to the specific needs of the members and their institutional contexts. These include the level of funder involvement, who makes decisions within the group, and whether and how to foster competition among partners.
The world is a messy, complicated place, and solving interconnected, systemic problems requires patience and resilience. Grantmaking organizations and grantee organizations now have the opportunity and the drive to step outside of how they have always done things and really think about how best to structure their efforts and be catalysts for lasting change. Social innovators (and the funders they rely on) should prioritize these elements in their work as they strive to make the world a better place.