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Why funders need to get out of their swimming lanes

Why funders need to get out of their swimming lanes

For many Australians a real highlight of the Olympics is watching the final night of the swimming. It’s not just because Australia typically does well (London aside) but because it’s the night of the relay finals and we are drawn to the best swimmers putting aside their respective interests to strive for a gold medal for their country.

There’s something inherently appealing and logical about using our respective assets and capabilities to work together to achieve a common goal and it’s most evident in our community when we face a crisis or natural disaster. Somehow on those occasions the social sector is able to shift from running our own individual races in swim lanes to forming a champion team and doing great things together. It begs the question of why this can’t be done day in and day out as we work to support Australians beset by perennial social problems. Surely funders and our community partners can put aside logo and ego to improve the lives of more Australians and create stronger communities. It’s tough but it can be done, by organisations large and small alike.

United Way Worldwide is the largest privately funded not for profit in the world and 15 years ago my colleagues in the United States and Canada starting asking questions about their theory of change. For over 100 years our purpose was to raise money from local communities (in the US this equates to $2.2b) and make grants to thousands of charities around the country. They concluded that whilst this had done lots of good we’d inadvertently created a complex web of small community projects that were disconnected from each other; they were at times duplicating activity and at worst actively competing. It was hard to see improved outcomes at the local community population level despite this massive investment. This reflection led to a historic decision to move away from raising money to fund programs to instead resourcing community level impact strategies or as we call it ‘mobilising individuals and organisations to advance the common good.’

As you can imagine when the largest funder in the country changes the way they grant and engage local communities it creates a wave of change. As our network became more focused on a few key national strategies including school readiness, school completion and financial security there developed some fantastic innovations and local partnerships. One was the Strive Partnership in Cincinatti which was showcased in Kania and Kramer’s work on Collective Impact in late 2011. Kramer recently wrote about the work of United Way and it provides a potential blue print for other funders:

‘United Ways can train the spotlight on critical issues, engage with private and public sector leaders, and coordinate agendas with partners to leverage collective efforts. When United Way leverages its role as a funder to build relationships between organizations rather than fund them individually, it is also redefining its own role within a larger context for impact.’

There’s been lots of talk about Collective Impact in Australia and like every new innovation there can be too much of a sense that this is the new silver bullet. For me Collective Impact provides a useful guide in tackling a complex social problem for a population group in a local community. This created new opportunities for funders, specifically funders that have:

  • interests in specific geographies
  • received submissions from organisations doing the same thing in a community
  • a desire to fund collaboratively with other grant makers
  • a willingness to be an active partner in a local community coalition
  • a desire to find a new way to improve the lives for specific group of people in a local community

United Way Australia has been on this journey for the last 6 years which you can read about in our Community Impact report for 2012. A great local example of our collaborative work is 90 Homes for 90 Lives - a coalition of leaders that secured resources to provide permanent homes for 70 Rough Sleepers in Woolloomooloo, with demonstrated early success.

Of course we are not alone, we have been supported by our corporate and community partners and there are many other funders who have been working collaboratively for a number of years. Collective Impact does provide a helpful new tool kit for those of us committed to place base outcomes. United Way along with others such as our partner ten20 Foundation, a newly formed Venture Philanthropy foundation, are actively applying the Collective Impact principles and want to learn with others. Ten20 and United way are convening a National Pilot to demonstrate this new approach to funding and service delivery with the goal of catalysing support across government, philanthropy, the corporate sector to evidence that this new approach to social change can produce ‘needle shifting’ change at the community level for vulnerable children and their families.

Finally, and to continue the Olympics metaphor, check out this animation which uses a group of rowers to illustrate the power of Collective Impact. As funders and community leaders we need to ask ourselves are we only accountable for running our organisation’s program and getting a PB in our own individual event? Or are we willing to take responsibility for the overall health and wellbeing of our community and take a step in a new direction to make change of truly Olympic proportions? Because when we team up with the person in the lane next to us, magic can happen. And, against the odds, maybe we can even win gold.

Doug Taylor

Doug joined United Way Sydney in 2007 and in his role as CEO he is focused on developing the Community Impact strategy that addresses the education, income and health needs of local communities and instigated the Common Cause Strategy in Sydney (www.commoncause.com.au). This work has culminated in a number of Collective Impact strategies and ReadLearnSucceed. He has played a leadership role in nationalising United Way’s work which resulted in him becoming United Way Australia’s inaugural CEO and Executive Director.

He is frequently engaged to advise United Way members internationally, has helped developed the organisation’s Asia Pacific Corporate strategy and is a Member of the United Way Worldwide Membership Accountability Committee. He has also chaired the United Way Worldwide Professional Council, has sat on the Commonwealth’s Volunteer Policy Advisory Groups, the Centre for Social Impact Advisory Board and is a Board Member of the School for Social Entrepreneurs.

Doug completed Post Graduate studies in Management and is an alumni of the Sydney Leadership program in 2004. He also has a Bachelor of Arts (Honours), Bachelor of Ministry and Diplomas in Theology and Volunteer Management.

Prior to working with United Way, Doug was the Head of Community Partnership at WorkVentures, responsible for its Digital Divide and Community Economic Development programs. He helped establish a network of Technology Centres for social housing tenants, scaled up a PC recycling program that has provided IT access to 10,000 low income families and not for profit organisations and launched an innovative enterprise program in South Western Sydney that engaged all levels of government, corporations and philanthropic foundations. In 2005 he also led a team that received the Prime Minister’s Business Community Partnership award for longevity with Microsoft Australia.