A few months ago, a group of small foundations, charities and other actors from German civil society gathered at a conference in Cologne to discuss one of the most important topics currently being talked over in strategic philanthropy: how can we transfer ideas for social projects and at the same time avoid funding duplicative projects?
Achieving a higher impact with less effort and a minimal use of financial resources seems to be one of the most important issues for philanthropic institutions nowadays. The idea of collective impact is being discussed in various articles and approaches to expand the work of non-profits. Institutions like the Social Impact Analysts Association (SIAA) in the UK or Phineo in Germany, which emphasize the need for reliable and effective funding strategies, are trying to measure the impact of philanthropy. In Germany, debates with foundations and non-profits aim to take collaborations between different civil society actors to a new level. It we want to increase collective impact and transfer project ideas more efficiently, funding institutions and non-profits alike need to do more field scans and think strategically before supporting projects – otherwise they run the risk of funding duplicative ones. To avoid this, organizations have to build alliances and join forces in their fields of action; they also need to improve communication between organizations about old and new projects.
Establishing continuous communication is one of the five conditions for greater collective impact. According to the concept of collective impact, communication is needed to build trust, reach an agreement on common goals and create motivation. Why should this be important only within projects already initiated? It could also be used to foster a constant dialogue between actors in advance. About 16 actors from various civil society organizations like the Bertelsmann Foundation and the Stiftung MITARBEIT, and also smaller charities like 2aid.org, an organization that fights poverty, participated in a so-called blog-parade that took place prior to the conference. Such blog-parades ask the contributors to write a blog post on a joint topic. A summary of the blog-parade provided by Lisa Fedler of openTransfer offers an informative overview over the range of issues organizations have to tackle when building partnerships for collective impact or transferring project ideas. A follow-up chat with participating organizations on Twitter on 27 August used the identified barriers on the structural, cultural and individual levels of organizations to continue the discussion.
Structural barriers are at the forefront of the factors standing in the way of creating collective impact and hindering the transfer of social project ideas. Most notably, the current funding of projects rates the innovation of projects more than the possibility to be transferable and hence offer an opportunity to grow in the future. Consequently, foundations have to work more closely together to offer a denser knowledge framework and exchange results from field scans, and thus to minimize the risk of funding duplicative projects. Organizations should also stop thinking inside the box and open up. This is clearly one of the biggest challenges, but it could be tackled by the creation of national and transnational networks.
The three challenges that arise from cultural barriers are the fostering of trust between foundations and organizations, learning to share knowledge, and arriving at the conclusion that information advantage should no longer be associated with striving for power in the third sector. The blog-parade participants observed it to be one of the biggest challenges at the individual level to let knowledge float freely between different actors instead of fencing off innovation solely to a single organization.
Although the participants in the blog-parade don’t have one single answer to solve all problems at once, several contributors stated that regular meet-ups, offline as well as online, might be a first step to help spread information about the idea of collective impact and to change the way strategic philanthropy is approached in the near future. Internet platforms and social media are an important part of this strategy – to guarantee and support a continuing debate and also to provide a growing database of projects already in place; they are a resource to identify opportunities and places to step in. The next conference of the openTransfer Camp will be in Munich in mid-October. It is already clear that collective impact, social entrepreneurship and the value of communication are going to be dominant topics at this conference.
Tobias Bürger is social media fellow at the Stiftung Mercator in Germany.