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Collective Impact and Place

Kania and Kramer’s latest piece in the Stanford Social Innovation Review is a great addition to understanding what works in the field of philanthropy. For the last four years, I have been working as a “place & issue-based” funder, rather than an “issue & approach” funder, and it has changed my view of much of what they have written. I suggest taking their ideas several steps further.

Based on the examples they gave and my own experience, “collective impact” requires “place,” or at least is more likely to succeed with place. Part of the failure of Gates, Ford, Annenberg and Pew (mentioned in their article) may be the tacit assumption that place is not important, that education is a technical problem. As Kania and Kramer’s examination suggests, place may be unimportant on technical problems (how to get vaccines that do not require refrigeration), but for adaptive ones (how a community closes equity gaps), a place component may be critical.

By place, I’m talking about geographically based initiatives, where the growth of local or regional capacity and bridging and bonding social capital, are part of the solution. Too often funders see a problem or opportunity from a “tool” perspective. I’ve certainly made the mistake of believing what we needed to do was find a tool that worked somewhere and just modify it to this situation. That is trying to make a technical solution behave like an adaptive one, when it is still really a technical approach. I’m not suggesting ignoring the tool-based experience of others, but stopping at understanding what worked somewhere else can be a trap. A classic example of this is for funders to say, “We are not funding operating costs; we are just funding the program implementation.” Funding the tool without healthy partners to wield it, is almost guaranteed to have problems.

I’ve fallen in this trap (a tool metaphor) numerous times during my career, but their article helped me to understand the failures more clearly. At Northwest Area Foundation (with which I am no longer associated, so these comments are only mine), I unfortunately often saw poverty as a technical problem, not as an adaptive one. This was reinforced by beliefs in many communities that all they had to do was find and transfer the right technical model, especially in areas like economic development. Thus the pursuit of best practice without understanding what “best” required. As Michael Q. Patton asked several years ago, “What makes a best practice, best?” For many opportunities, “best” requires a place-specific adaptive answer, rather than a technical one.

Part of our difficulties at Northwest Area had to do with underestimating what is required for a community or region to be “ready.” The communities where our support produced the greatest outcomes were those most ready. We did some things to help communities become readier, but we were often in too much of a hurry. The five conditions Kania and Kramer outline are excellent dimensions along which we can observe readiness. One does not have to wait until all five conditions are met, but funders can use the five to help make both developmental and implementation support more useful.

I encourage Kania and Kramer to take their challenge to funders a step further. Most of my career in philanthropy I have worked as an external funder, representing an organization that is not in the community or region where the money is being spent. For the last four years I have served as an embedded funder for the first time in my career (at Danville Regional Foundation we are actively engaged in all five dimensions the authors suggest—we will see if we get them right). The two approaches—embedded and external--are significantly different. Kania and Kramer suggest that funders shift “…to leading a long-term process of social change.” External funders cannot lead from a distance, or if they do they often fall into the trap of a technical approach. Most external funders end up being rule or covenant driven, not able to fully comprehend and act with adequate speed on what needs to happen in the community or region. I’ve certainly made that mistake. 

External funders can invest in readiness but they cannot create it, just like they can earn trust but they cannot buy it. People and organizations near the ground must create readiness. Both external and embedded funders can make investments in ways that actually damage the ability of communities to meet the five conditions. Much of the technical work of philanthropy is based on the assumption that diffusion occurs automatically, or by some natural means—create a good tool and it will be transferred. What this article helps me to understand is that social capacity represented by excellent backbone organizations and several of the other conditions, is critical to the diffusion of adaptive solutions. External and embedded funders that are unwilling or unable to invest in such social capacity end up reinforcing the mal-distribution of opportunity in America. This opportunity segregation is particular critical in places of low capacity and low philanthropic connections like many rural and urban low-income areas.

What if national or regional funders used their resources to encourage the development of the five capacities proposed in this paper, as a few have? What if embedded funders focused on the new leadership role Kania and Kramer propose, as a few have? I think we would be significantly further along addressing regionally defined opportunities and solutions, rather than waiting for someone telling us what best practice to pursue. But in their next paper, I hope Kania and Kramer will explore the question, When embedded leadership best comes from funders and when it best comes from less financially privileged organizations? Does it matter? My instinct is that it does.

As a former federal official, I also think there are great lessons in this piece for governments, but I’ll save that for another day.

Karl Stauber is President & CEO of the Danville Regional Foundation (DRF), a five year old health conversation foundation based in Danville, VA.