The problems that nonprofits seek to address seem to be getting more entrenched and complicated by the day. NASA named August 2016 the warmest August in 136 years of modern recordkeeping. The US Census Bureau recently released data that confirms the persistence of gross economic inequality (despite nominal middle class gains). And in the midst of the US presidential election cycle, numerous polls show that Americans have shockingly low levels of trust in public institutions such as the media and Congress. It will take collaborative efforts to solve these issues—but even collaborations designed to achieve collective impact have limitations.

There is some good news, though. Think of how the iPhone and Wikipedia took existing technologies and created something transformative. In a similar way, an emerging approach to social change may be able to help nonprofits work together to create something far greater than the sum of their parts. ​We call this approach “catalytic collaboration,” and we “discovered” it through talking to the leaders of a diverse set of 30 nonprofits about the ways they work and the potential they see for seeding unprecedented, sweeping change. All of the organizations we studied are committed to collaboration, but only a handful, we realized are emerging as truly catalytic collaborators. These organizations are exemplary in displaying four essential behaviors:

  1. Prioritizing learning: Catalytic collaborators are intently interested in creating knowledge for the betterment of their entire field. They focus on not just learning for evaluation, but field-relevant learning, about both broad trends that influence the social problem at hand and failed past attempts to tackle it. This focus forms the basis for innovation, transformation, and sustainable impact.
  2. Systems thinking and acting: Catalytic collaborators are intentional in their efforts to understand and address the full chain of factors that contribute to their issue at a systems level, including the ecosystem of relevant players.
  3. Democratizing access to assets: Catalytic collaborators focus on equitable access to assets rather than on individual ownership. To ensure this access, they create or leverage open source technology and platforms.
  4. Building long-term, diverse, transformational relationships: Catalytic collaborators inclusively and deliberately bring together unusual suspects. They seek to build mutual trust, respect, and complementary activities over time, and foster transformational relationships across a wide range of stakeholders. 

Other writers in SSIR have highlighted some aspects of this approach in isolation, such as the importance of humble network leaders who cultivate trust-based relationships, the value of a systems mindset, and the role of information sharing and learning (specifically for evaluation’s sake) in collective impact. However, we believe that in order to be truly transformative, an organization must work to ensure that all four traits are present, and working in a way that amplifies the impact of each one.

Who Are the Catalytic Collaborators?

What follows are very brief profiles of four emerging catalytic collaborators. Each embodies a combination of the four behaviors outlined above, even if a single trait is clearly dominant. Indeed, we have found that many catalytic collaborators display one or two of the four behaviors more strongly, while others’ strengths lie more in another of the four. We expect that over time, these organizations will strengthen their performance across all four dimensions.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the example organizations that follow are also among the first to leverage the potential of current socio-economic shifts toward democratization, including: 1) the rise of the sharing economy (which promotes access over assets); 2) increased recognition of the importance of networks (and decreased relevance of organizational boundaries and the organization as a distinct entity); 3) growing interest in systems thinking and systems leadership; and 4) the decentralization and digitization of knowledge and information.

1) EMPath 

EMPath is a Boston-based nonprofit creating new avenues to economic independence for low-income women and families through a model that combines direct service, research, and policy advocacy. Its “disrupt poverty” mission has led it to invest serious time and resources into openly sharing its programs and tools through the Economic Independence Exchange, a growing network of more than 50 organizations. As president and CEO Elizabeth Babcock notes, “Every intervention we make has an eye to figuring out how to improve outcomes through data collection, and then sharing the resulting knowledge…. [We want to] scale the learning for the sector as a whole…to deliver a better product to as many families as possible.” EMPath thus focuses on prioritizing learning. But it also exhibits other traits of catalytic collaborators: By democratizing access to technological learning platforms (such as monthly webinars and a members-only portal), it helps enable network members to actively share and learn from one another’s experiences in real-time, and this collective dialogue helps participants identify and respond to systems-level trends.

The results speak for themselves: Beneficiaries of the Mobility Mentoring model—EmPath’s signature approach that offers individualized assistance in skills-building for economic independence, and is implemented throughout the Exchange network—have increased their income by over 70 percent over five years. Each year the network serves more than 3,500 people with this model and has grown by nearly 250 percent over the last two years, poising it to help countless women across the country escape poverty.  

2) The Breast Cancer Fund (BCF)

BCF is dedicated to identifying and eliminating environmental causes of cancer and in 2004 spearheaded an advocacy effort called the Campaign for Safe Cosmetics. In recent years, that campaign has rallied partners to engage in a mapping project to trace and learn about toxic substances present throughout the multi-billion dollar cosmetics industry. This work, clearly focused on systems thinking and acting, has forged long-term relationships between more than a dozen organizations, including some unlikely partners (from the Sierra Club to consumer groups to the Autism Society of America.)

As Jeanne Rizzo, BCF president and CEO, explains it, the network’s aim is to identify the toxic agents and then step back to identify—and eliminate—the political and economic factors that allow those substances to make it to the market. "We are mapping the entire system that results in toxic exposure, and figuring out the economy of it,” she says. The key is concentrating on points of consumer leverage and influence and identifying actionable information (rather than mapping a system just to learn or mapping too much information, leading to action paralysis). This approach makes it easier for stakeholders to understand the steps they need to take to drive change. BCF’s work boasts impressive results: The campaign has educated millions of consumers on harmful substances, and BCF’s track record includes pressuring retail giants Walmart, Target, and Johnson & Johnson to eliminate toxic products.

3) The National New Play Network (NNPN)

Countless small theaters across the country risk going out of business for lack of resources, but NNPN is democratizing access to at least one core asset: cutting-edge, high-quality plays. To do so, NNPN employs technology that enables small theaters with limited budgets to review scripts, afford first-rate plays, and find new playwrights. With more than 90 organizations participating, the network pools collective knowledge and resources through crowdsourcing to create (as its website notes) “the world’s largest and smartest database of new plays.”

Playwrights benefit because they can upload their plays, give and receive peer feedback, develop new relationships, and gain access to new outlets for their work. Small theaters benefit by having access to a new and ever-growing assortment of new works; as a result, they can put on first-rate productions they otherwise might have missed out on. (NNPN also helps fund productions and has provided over $1 million to date to network member productions.) NNPN itself benefits by collecting, learning, from and sharing data about high-level trends in the theater industry. Through its focus on democratizing access to assets, NNPN has helped support plays that have reached hundreds of thousands of audience members nationwide.

4) The Gettysburg Project (GP)

GP was created to investigate not only the successes but also the perceived failures of the progressive movement (for example, the failure to prevent the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in favor of Citizens United), and to give citizens more power in shaping the public policies affecting their lives. This has required bringing together a diverse cross-section of the progressive movement—including organizations young and old, national and regional, large and small, and with missions focused on specific issues and general civic engagement. All participants are required to make a several-year commitment, and rather than shy away from the discomfort of having perceived competitors in the same room, GP creates safe environments through those long-term relationships and its focus on systems-level learning and action. These conditions allow for honest, critical reflections and growth.

By learning not only from “best practices” but also from failures, members are united in uncovering new approaches to improve their work. As director Anna Burger explains, “There is a real sense of urgency, a determination to make a difference, and a willingness to put ourselves and our organizations at risk to make things more effective.” Mapping systems of power has informed GP’s analysis of long-term economic, social, and political trends. Only through the collective critical reflections and efforts of this community has GP been able to identify megatrends shaping American civic life, and based on these lay out a strategy to help forge an entirely new social contract over the next two decades.

Lessons From Catalytic Collaboration

Catalytic collaboration need not be the goal of all collaborative efforts. Catalytic collaboration is resource-intensive, and there isn’t (nor should there be) a one-size fits all approach to collaboration. Nonetheless, experiences from catalytic collaborators  suggest three tips for groups that do aspire to effect change at this level:

  1. Lead with learning (for impact, not just evaluation). Be broad and inclusive in contacting potential collaborators, and map actionable information about the systems that influence your shared social concern. Prioritize action learning not just to report metrics but also to advance your entire field.
  2. Explore “enlightened” self-interest. Recognize that catalytic collaboration requires energy and effort whose benefits may not flow directly or immediately back to your own organization. This kind of end game requires putting longer-term collective good first (and also likely requires a bit more risk tolerance than the typical nonprofit can stomach).
  3. Consider technology a means, not an end. Use technology and open source platforms where possible to promote asset access rather than asset ownership. However, understand that technology platforms are only as valuable as the strength of relationships that underpin them.

The potential for catalytic collaboration’s longer-term impact on entrenched social issues is tremendous. This emerging approach has real potential to effect and sustain broad social change. 

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