SSLR Winter 2011This is the first of two posts on Collective Impact,” an article by John Kania and Mark R. Kramer from the Winter 2011 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review.

At first glance, an article entitled “Collective Impact” sounds like it would contain some appealing and interesting ideas for cross sector collaboration on social issues. And it does. But a very provocative message for the philanthropic sector actually lives here, something that upends traditional and current notions of how we fundamentally engage in philanthropy. And this is it:  Philanthropy as currently practiced is inadequate to effect positive change on a complex social issue. Philanthropists of every stripe – individuals, foundations and companies – need to wake up to this and change our thinking about what we do and how we do it.

The authors of “Collective Impact,” John Kania and Mark Kramer of FSG, are two of the most interesting thought leaders in U.S. philanthropy today. They study what works in philanthropy, bringing an evidence based approach and national lens to the topic. Their knowledge and experience is obviously leading them to some inescapable albeit difficult truths about philanthropy’s actual impact.

Isolated Impact: To set the stage for how collective impact can work, Kania and Kramer first describe what doesn’t work – the current isolated impact of philanthropists and the nonprofits they support.

Here is the typical process philanthropists follow:

  • Philanthropists seek to select the “best” individual nonprofits for funding.
  • Nonprofits compete for these funds by highlighting their unique and isolated impact on the issue.
  • As a result, nonprofits are rewarded by philanthropists for their individual, isolated work and for their development of independent solutions to complex social issues, working alone and not in concert with others.
If you are a philanthropist reading this, please note what Kania and Kramer are really saying:  Isolated impact is the direct result of the thinking and behavior of philanthropists, not the nonprofits they fund. We need to stop blaming nonprofits for failing to collaborate. The root of the problem lays much closer to home.

A deep and often unspoken construct underlying philanthropy today is a belief that individual philanthropists funding individual organizations can actually move the needle on complex social issues.  But the evidence simply does not bear this out.  No single sector of our society is ever responsible for a complex social problem in the first place, so no single funder or nonprofit organization will ever effectively “fix” it.

Examples of “collective impact” that have a positive impact on complex social issues do exist. My next blog post on this article will say more on that.