Rock stars in Nashville
Submitted by unitedway, 15 May 2012
It’s hard to think of an Academic as a rock star, but that’s how Mark Kramer, Co-Founder and Managing Director of FSG, was received at the Global Conference for United Way Worldwide in Nashville last month. Perhaps it was because we were in the US Country Music capital (Dolly Parton made an appearance as well, but that’s another blog altogether).
Kramer’s work, along with his colleagues, has been seminal in recent years in re-thinking the role of not-for-profits and businesses in solving social problems, as outlined in the ideas of Shared Value and Collective Impact. In United Way Worldwide’s 125th Anniversary year, this thinking has resonated and reinforced our resolve to become a community impact focused organisation.
Like so many institutions we lost our way for a few decades as we became more focused on the means and not the end of social change making. Our Theory of Change for a long time was to raise as much money as possible and fund not-for-profits to provide services to their ‘clients’ in the community.
In the US and Australia this has coincided with an explosion in the numbers of not-for-profit organisations. This has benefitted a great many in society, as these community owned institutions have increased the quality and diversity of services provided to people who are often not able to address their specific needs alone. However one of the unintended consequences of this is a vast system of institutions working individually and often on the same issue to create, in Kramer’s words, ‘Isolated Impact’. They each have a primary purpose to manage the problems of the clients they seek to benefit, primarily through funding contracts. The problem with this is that ‘no single organisation is responsible for any major social problems, nor can any single organisation cure it’.
Kramer believes that most not-for-profits are trying to address social problems with their ‘hands tied behind their back’ because they are not working and learning together and they don’t evaluate their work using consistent frameworks. The increased complexity of the social systems and problems provides a compelling case for a more collaborative approach. He made two overarching suggestions on how to move beyond the current service delivery models that predominate.
- He spoke about the importance of raising our expectations for change and setting community level goals.
For too long we’ve let Government pick up the tab for improving major social problems and as a result let business and not-for-profits off the hook. This is no more evident for me than in Detroit where my good friend Michael Brennan, United Way Detroit CEO, has worked with others to create change in secondary schools where only 60% of young people graduate. This problem is not unusual across America but is startling when you consider the long term prospects for young people if they don’t finish school.
It was also a concern to the local car manufacturing industry who, post–GFC, needed to be better positioned in terms of technology integration and a better skilled workforce. These factors were the foundation for a collective effort that resulted in a 25% reduction of chronic absenteeism in schools in Detroit. As a result of this success, General Motors Foundation have committed $27.1m to take these promising strategies to 30 other schools with the goal of 80% graduation. This could only happen when local institutions stopped just taking responsibility for their own service and interest and instead made a community-wide impact through collaboration with others.
- Kramer also spoke about the value of engaging business who he believes for too long have focused on writing cheques for not-for-profits and not being core partners in solving community problems.
His words reflect his Shared Value paper which highlights the opportunity for businesses to find ways to address their own needs in solving community issues. Shared Value compels businesses to think more broadly about their potential to create value for customers and communities and in so doing enhance profitability. He argues that when ‘Shared Value’ is created, the result is growth in the variety and volume of resources available (and not all of it money) for research and development, which is the fuel of innovation.
To make his point Kramer spoke about the Cisco Learning Academies, which were developed to create a skilled future IT workforce. This program has yielded Cisco access to 4 million alumni across the world that are ready to become employees in an industry that only a few years ago was not even invented.
I recall being part of a team of people who rolled out an Academy in Western Sydney. This continues to be an important program providing industry entry points for young people and skilled employees for business. We made this happen, in Kramer’s words, by making use of a ‘local cluster’ of organisations working across sectors to address a social need.
A while ago I wrote about the great outcomes achieved by the 90 Homes for 90 Lives Coalition, who have collaborated to address homelessness in Woolloomooloo in Sydney. This coalition identified a best practice model, developed a business case and leveraged a $2.9m grant for Bridge Housing. As a result 22 people have been housed. Critical to this work was the collaboration and the setting of a clear community-level goal.
Raising our collective gaze beyond our services to clients, to the broader needs of the community, is everyone’s responsibility.
Kramer spoke about the critical role of ‘Backbone’ organisations, such as United Way, in improving community level conditions. It’s challenging work but increasingly necessary given the predominance of Wickedly Complex issues in our local communities. In many ways it’s the harder road and it’s easy to fall back to our own institutional agendas.
However it’s important to remember that ‘if it’s important to you, you’ll find a way; if it’s not you will find an excuse’. It’s time to stop letting ourselves off the hook with excuses.
CEO, United Way Australia
- Kramer M. & Kania, Collective Impact, Stanford Social Innovation Review
- Porter M. & Kramer M, Creating Shared Value, Harvard Business Review
The United Way Community Leaders Conference was held in May 2012 in Nashville, Tennessee, in the United States of America. For further information visit the website.