A day at the sea: do philanthropy and coral reefs have something in common?


Michael Alberg-Seberich


Michael Alberg-Seberich

When did you use the last time the words ‘network’, ‘partnership’ or ‘cooperation’ to describe impact in giving? Reading articles, blogs or just looking at the titles of current conferences in philanthropy or the wider third sector I get a sense that these principles are talk of the day (again). I would like to approach the importance of the issue from a different angle today.

Steven Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From – The Natural History of Innovation (published in 2010) identifies key patterns behind innovation. The really fascinating  aspect of this book – by the way, a great summer read – is the interdisciplinary approach the author takes. Johnson reveals many analogies between nature’s and human’s innovation processes. The book is full of change metaphors that are relevant to the world of philanthropy.

Let’s try this out: Johnson takes the reader around the world and especially out on the sea. He describes in detail how coral reefs grow: ‘The tiny Scleractinia polyp isn’t actively trying to create an underwater Las Vegas, but nonetheless out of its steady labour … a higher level system emerges. What had been a largely desolate stretch of nutrient-poor seawater is transformed into a glittering hub of activity’ (Johnson 2010: 182). Johnson describes the work of the polyp as ‘platform building’ and shows later on in his book how the web and many other human inventions are based on the same observation: a polyp creates the basis for many other forms of life. An idea becomes the basis for many other ideas. Both create ‘ecosystems’ of their kind.

In philanthropy we struggle every day with trying to solve some of the most pressing social problems. As Kania and Kramer already pointed out in their article Collective Impact, in the past we often focused too much on ‘isolated impact’. Foundations and donors supported one intervention at a time. But the reef metaphor shows that we need to remind ourselves again and again that we are part of systems. Everything in these systems is connected and we all have stakes when it comes to societal change.

Johnson argues that the reef, the platform has a ‘cooperative advantage’. Looking around in philanthropy land you get a sense that foundations are trying to use this advantage. In Germany alone we have seen in recent weeks a lot of new philanthropic collaborative ventures. Examples are:

  • At the end of June the corporate foundation of the Generali insurance group focused a whole conference on the value of partnering and networks for social change.
  • The Mercator Foundation convened foundations from all over Germany to explore joint strategies in the field of cultural education.
  • The Herbert Quandt Foundation launched the initiative Bürger.Innen.Land MV, a platform to enhance civic engagement in the state of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania.

It looks like the building of coral reefs are already part of the zeitgeist. If Johnson is correct with his observations they need to become a constant part of philanthropy. This will create a tremendous shift in philanthropy, from focus on results towards a model of impact that also values the good management of a process. Networks and platforms in the end are ecosystems that are based on interaction, trust and openness. Have a nice day at the sea!

Michael Alberg-Seberich is managing partner at Active Philanthropy

Further articles from Alliance magazine related to these topics:

Tagged in: ecosystems Germany Impact Steven Johnson

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