As a collection of mainly competitive actors that exist to define and pursue our own missions, we are weak in the face of climate change and inequality. As networks of organisations, individuals and groups seeking to play our best roles in relation to each other, anything is possible.
Over the last couple of months, I happen to have racked up about 100 hours listening to charities, social enterprises and impact-driven businesses introduce and describe their work — through funding panels, pitches, interviews and workshops. I love spending time with teams that have dedicated themselves to working on the social challenges we face and social ambitions we hold. I feel at home amongst them, I’m inspired and fascinated by their work and I’ll normally take any chance to hear more about it.
But, there’s an incredibly frustrating default setting for these introductions and descriptions that, in the aggregate, paint a picture of a strange and dysfunctional system.
One by one, over and over, these organisations normally position their work as the predominant or even single solution to the problem they’re working on.
This default claims the biggest mission, the most important services and the greatest impact. It outlines ambitions to transform their reach from a big sounding number to an even bigger sounding number. It proposes developing new internal teams and new areas of expertise to meet these goals. And it often dismisses others working on similar problems, by omission or by specific reference to flaws and limitations. It sometimes lists collaborators and supporters, but normally as validation for the value of their services, rather than via any sort of meaningful interdependence or ambition to align and integrate.
Everyone (ourselves at Shift included) seems simultaneously complicit and frustrated by this default setting.
Charities and social enterprises feel compelled to present themselves as some sort of exemplary superpower, unable to admit flaws or failure for risk of being out-bid. They also have to deal with the practical and emotional consequences of spreading themselves thinly across complex systems and accumulating projects and functions that require investment that they can’t possibly sustain. Trusts and foundations seem equally frustrated by it, despite being blamed (partly justifiably, partly not) for perpetuating it. With dozens or 100s of organisations making the claim as the rightful solution, how can they possibly know which they should support or how to invest in thriving systems?
This is what John Kania and Mark Kramer, referred to this as isolated impact
Most funders, faced with the task of choosing a few grantees from many applicants, try to ascertain which organizations make the greatest contribution toward solving a social problem. Grantees, in turn, compete to be chosen by emphasizing how their individual activities produce the greatest effect. Each organization is judged on its own potential to achieve impact, independent of the numerous other organizations that may also influence the issue. And when a grantee is asked to evaluate the impact of its work, every attempt is made to isolate that grantee’s individual influence from all other variables.
Philosophically and intellectually, we have the ideas and there is a strong emerging consensus within the public and third sectors that this isn’t the way we want to work.
Systems change, ecosystems building, field building, field catalysts, collective impact, network weaving, designing in networks and other concepts all challenge the prevailing model and mindset. These radically better approaches are regularly, passionately and succinctly articulated: Dawn Plimmer and Toby Lowe’s case for “working in a way that is human, prioritises learning and takes a systems approach”; Indy Johar’s call for “an alternative to innovation economies beyond rivalrous economics toward non rivalrous economics”; Dawn Austwick’s rallying cry for those who hold power to “take a collaborative and generous approach to leadership”; Geoff Mulgan’s ode to the power of “new kinds collective intelligence to solve problems like climate change or disease”; Cassie Robinson’s compelling and practical Collective Obsession.
To help translate more of this thinking into practice, here is a simple concept: the existence of any impact-focused entity or effort should be defined by the role that it plays in relation to others — interdependent, humble, focused wholeheartedly on the actual experiences of people and communities and driven by a shared ambition to build better, more equitable and more sustainable systems.
What could this look like in practice for individual organisations and teams?
A role statement, sitting at the top of organisations and institutions, alongside, within or instead of their purpose or mission, would define an organisation’s existence by the contribution that it intends to make to the system in which it operates, defined by its relationship with others.
A role-based theory of change or impact framework would plot the function, contribution, asset or expertise that an organisation — or service, product, programme or team — plays within an interdependent, highly connected set of actors driving towards common outcomes, with shared measures and joint contributions to capturing and sharing data.
A role-focused value proposition would articulate the value to the system, to the network and to collective capacity, capabilities and outcomes of every kind of contribution — specific services, products, programmes and tools; knowledge, experience and expertise; convening, connecting and enabling; data; space, facilities and resources; relationships and trust.
A strategy focused on playing the best and most valuable role would prioritise activities that increase understanding of context; that seek to improve and refine activities in relation to others; that seek to only add new things that represent a collective deficit or ambition; that seek to put things out of action when their role is no longer required (including organisations themselves).
A governance model reflecting this focus on role would ensure representation for other actors working towards similar goals and seek to continually broaden and diversify those represented and introduce new actors that challenge and disrupt. Those once considered current competitors would be actively informing and shaping each other’s role.
And what sits behind this model? What informs, motivates and facilitates it?
A collective approach to putting people and communities at the centre of everything: major investment in well segmented, up-to-date shared views of the experience of people, families and communities, their current access to services and support, their priorities and aspirations; shared efforts to give these people and communities voice and active roles in setting priorities, allocating resources and ongoing research, design, delivery and measurement.
Shared views of what role everyone is (and isn’t) playing in meeting these needs: open, up to date, people-centred views of how we’re doing in relation to the needs, priorities, aspirations and outcomes of different groups, segments and communities, that equips us all to align, integrate, fill gaps, set about big common objectives, redirect resources (e.g. the 360 Giving model applied to every area of practice).
Much greater interest and investment in dedicated capacity to work together, to align, integrate and merge, as well as the actors that provide this connective tissue — network weavers, field builders, systems transition drivers and other roles that act as the often unseen influences across these networks and ecosystems; that convene, connect and integrate; that build shared practice and knowledge, that provide platforms and assets; that seek and introduce new actors, resources, assets and approaches; that challenge, disrupt and, perhaps, radically rethink.
An equal obsession amongst Trusts and Foundations, impact investors and commissioners about their role, which consider, continuously and transparently, what the best contribution certain forms and levels of capital and other resources can play in conjunction with or alongside the other forms of existing capital and resource.
A system of making this more mutually aware and reinforcing capital available in ways that removes the destructive dominance of competition, but retains its ability to drive improvement and innovation, motivate change and bring in new actors.
And why would we all do this?
There are so many powerful reasons why we should collapse the default, competitive, counter-productive system. But I feel that we only really need two…
First of all, because we absolutely have to. Inequality and climate change are of such urgency and complexity that we simply have to find ways of multiplying our capacity to drive change and progress, to challenge the systems that have plotted a devastating social and environment course and to build new ones.
As a collection of mainly competitive actors that exist to define and pursue our own mission; that duplicate and overlap each others services; that repeat each others learning and research; that build and rebuild each others expertise; and that invest independently and insufficiently our own organisational functions and capabilities, we are desperately weakened.
As networks of organisations, individuals, groups and clusters seeking and playing our best roles in relation to each other; adapting, reframing, growing, shrinking, or even ending our work based on what the system requires of us; jointly investing in shared resources, assets, infrastructure and expertise; and jointly articulating the value of our wider societal role and demanding the resources required to play it in the face of urgent challenges, anything is possible.
Secondly, and more prosaically, because it makes us unhappy. That isn’t to suggest that we should all be joyously skipping from one inspiring meeting about social change to the next. The work of social organisations is hard and, in the wake of a decade of devastating and ignorant cuts to services and welfare in the UK, need is greater and resources are thinner than ever. It is easy to feel bleak.
But, the system in which we operate can make us feel helpless, under-valued and overwhelmed — competition provides a reward for undermining others, so we are quick to judge and dismiss; the strange, but seemingly addictive compulsion to maintain all these organisations we have built, with all their independently run and financed functions, is incredibly stressful; the regular arrival of something else that we have to be brilliant at (tech, evidence, design, data etc), but with none of the resource for it to be more than something we do badly or temporarily, is demeaning; the layers of bullshit that continue to impress within this model and that male (tick), white (tick), middle-class (tick) and older (almost) actors are so good at selling (yep) create a stench for everyone (sellers included).
When we feel reinforced, when we feel part of something bigger ,when we can be honest about and do more of what we’re good at, when we feel that we understand and can play the best role we can, and when we are defined by our relationships and interdependencies, well, that’s when we love what we do.