Snowflakes, Plumbing and Other Takeaways from the 2017 Social Impact Exchange Conference

This blog post was originally published on the website for UPenn's Center for High Impact Philanthropy and is being reposted with permission by the author.

“Which snowflake breaks the branch?”

“It’s neither the first nor the last,” said Leslie Crutchfield, author and Executive Director of the Georgetown University Global Social Enterprise Initiative (GSEI). “Rather, it’s the collective weight of all the snowflakes that breaks the branch.” During the closing plenary, Crutchfield used this analogy to urge philanthropists to fund movements, not just programs. According to her research, movements only last when they have bottom-up support from a variety of different groups. For example, the successful movement to reduce smoking in the U.S. did not have one leader in particular. Rather, a groundswell of philanthropic leaders, citizen activists, lawyers, and others came together to push the movement forward—thus “breaking the branch” together. Philanthropies such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation played a crucial role in this movement, yet they alone cannot claim credit for its success. “There’s often ego involved in philanthropic funding,” Crutchfield remarked, “but funding movements doesn’t give you credit because you can’t attribute success to yourself.” For funders who are willing to forgo such credit, funding the “backbone” of movements can facilitate the involvement of the multiple stakeholders needed to make strong, lasting change.

What Does Systems Change Mean? Greatest Hits from the 2017 Conference on Scaling Impact

In reflecting on the recent Social Impact Exchange Conference on Scaling Impact, organized in partnership with Morgan Stanley, several recurring themes emerged throughout the event: collaboration; innovation; and new ways to harness capital for good. The most striking takeaway of the gathering for me was how important it is for philanthropic change-makers to come together in a safe space and exchange best practices, lessons learned, and new ideas to foster positive social impact. All of these themes fall under the umbrella of how philanthropists can shift mindsets and strategies to create systems-level change. But what does it really mean to achieve systems change? Here are some inspirations that hit home for me and my role in the sector:


Looking for the Intersection of Urgent Need and Lasting Impact

About the same time that the Social Impact Exchange Conference on Scaling Impact was wrapping up in New York City on June 15, Jeff Bezos was breaking the internet—or at least his tweet was. With little preliminary fanfare, Bezos took to Twitter to ask the world for ideas to inform his “philanthropy strategy” with a special emphasis on the short term—the “here and now.” Since then, Bezos has received more than 45,000 replies and counting. Not bad for a month’s worth of crowdsourcing.

To find good ideas, Bezos could have also attended the 2017 Social Impact Exchange Conference (SIEx17). Organized in partnership with Morgan Stanley, it brought together an impressive group of social innovators, philanthropists, and financial experts to explore ways to collaboratively fund and implement scalable initiatives that ultimately lead to systems transformation. Having attended my share of gatherings over the years, I have to admit I was somewhat skeptical about learning anything new or actionable. But I was wrong.  If he had attended, Mr. Bezos would have been able to benefit from some of the most cutting-edge thinking on how to find solutions that, as he phrases it, sit at the “intersection of urgent need and lasting impact.”

Language Matters: Communication at The Heart of Successful Collaboration

Language matters. Evidence matters. Transparency matters. In 2017, these may sound like political statements, but they are not intended to be. For those of us in the business of solving the world’s most intractable problems, they should be the fundamental tenets of our work. Nothing political, but simply the most efficient way to proceed: define your problem, design or fund programs based on sound evidence, develop and follow set protocols for your intervention and evaluation, report results in good faith. And as we look for effective ways to design and achieve system-wide change, these golden rules become even more important.

At this year’s Social Impact Exchange gathering – held in two exciting content-rich days in mid-June – presenters and delegates explored myriad methods for achieving impact at scale: systems-thinking to uncover the best leverage points, cross-funder collaboration, partnership with government and other stakeholders, market forces, systemization of existing knowledge and entrepreneurial chutzpah. The golden rules were perhaps taken as given, but we should be careful not to lose sight of them as our goals become more ambitious.

The Power of Building a New Network: Refections from the 2017 Conference

I had a fantastic experience at this year’s Social Impact Exchange Conference on Scaling Impact. Despite being one of the few people from the non-profit sector, I was warmly welcomed to join for an extraordinary two days. I attended the conference eager to learn the language of impact investing, and to build my network in the financial sector.  As the founder of the Center for Hunger-Free Communities, where we seek to improve the systems that directly affect low-income families with young children, I have developed a proven financial empowerment program, the Building Wealth and Health Network.  It is ready to scale. The conference is intended for funders, not for people like me on the front lines of trying to break the cycle of poverty. However, I was met with generous advice and insight.  After listening to the S. Robert Levine Scaling in Action© session regarding systems strategies and the need to break away from linear thinking and planning, I knew I was in the right place.

Learning to Collaborate: Another Successful Meeting of the Social Impact Exchange

On the occasion of the seventh annual meeting of the Social Impact Exchange, I would like to thank all who make it possible.  As the Chair of the Board of Directors, it is a pleasure to support President & Co-Founder, Alex Rossides, and Co-President, Toni La Belle, and all of their colleagues in their work.  We are also all grateful to all our meeting sponsors (listed here) and especially our partner, Morgan Stanley.  Without their effort and support we would not be meeting in New York once again. 

However, we could not put on as substantive a conference without the insights and connections we gain from our work with funders and non-profits all year round.  So, we should also thank the members of our working groups in early childhood, health, and poverty alleviation for their dues and the grant funds we have received to push this agenda over the last seven years  (Hint, hint).

Laying the Tracks for Future Growth

It’s hard for nonprofits to raise money for their day-to-day work. It’s even harder to raise money to grow their impact.

Funders and nonprofit leaders tend to focus on programs and expansion plans. That’s the sexy stuff that attracts support. Too few invest adequately in building the organizational capacity needed to lay the tracks for future growth—what Bridgespan’s Paul Carttar calls the “unsexy” side of scaling.

What explains this dilemma? Many nonprofit leaders find it hard to be forthcoming with funders about what their organizations really need to execute a growth strategy—whether it’s leadership development, IT support, financial management, or performance measurement. By and large, grantmakers do not provide support that adequately addresses those needs.

This disconnect shaped a key takeaway from the panel on Capacity Building for Sustainability at the recent Social Impact Exchange Conference: most nonprofits can’t invest enough in the organizational capacity they need to stay ahead of their own growth curve. In short, great programs may flourish, but the organizations behind them fail to keep up—an unsustainable mismatch. What will it take to ensure organizations are prepared to take programs to scale?

Scaling Evidence-Based Programs to Improve the Nation’s Health

Being a Scaling in Action presenter at the Social Impact Exchange Conference this year was rewarding for several reasons. First, it forced on me the discipline to tell the story of the decade-long evolution of the YMCA’s Diabetes Prevention Program in only 8 minutes! This wasn’t easy, but I appreciated the opportunity to refine my story. I’m now ready for “Shark Tank.” 

Second, it gave me an opportunity to hear the inspiring story of three other successful program models that are worthy and ready to scale. Finally, it provided me a tremendous opportunity to share the merits of using a nonprofit network like the Y to nationally scale evidence-based programs that can alleviate pressing social issues like diabetes.   

Attending to the “Unsexy” Side of Scaling: Sustainable Funding

This blog is reposted with permission from The author, Paul Carttar, moderated a panel at this year's Social Impact Exchange conference. 

Remarkably, the scaling of high-performing nonprofit organizations seems to have taken on a certain glamor. In our sector, we are typically eager to talk about such exciting topics as the design of promising interventions, the development of sophisticated organizational capacities, and, perhaps most alluring of all, the raising of growth capital from "investors" to fuel a program or organization's expansion or replication.

Yet there is a sobering reality, an "unsexy" side to scaling that we too frequently avoid: with each upward ratchet in size, as a nonprofit expands facilities and hires more employees, it also increases the amount of money it must raise each year simply to maintain its operations. And if it can't do this, it can no longer build scale.

Accordingly, I was pleased to see the recent Social Impact Exchange Conference on Scaling Impact devote a significant chunk of time to the need to develop revenue models that enable growing nonprofits to thrive at each level of size attained. At the conference, I had the privilege of facilitating a plenary session on "Financial Sustainability at Scale" with several experts, who together provided foundational answers to four of the biggest questions on the subject:

The Power of Network Mapping: Knowledge Sharing Across Stakeholders

Following her opening plenary speech at the Social Impact Exchange Conference on Scaling Impact on the morning of June 18, Heather McLeod Grant facilitated a two-hour interactive session called The Whole Is Greater Than the Sum of the Parts. This session translated the conceptual ideas and learning from McLeod Grant’s speech and the subsequent panel into practical skill sets for network-mapping. The power of this technique extends beyond the practical understanding of how to map a network to a more intricate "knowledge-share process" among stakeholders. 

Concepts, strategies, and ideas were put into practice by bringing different stakeholders to the table, thus creating a shared understanding of the problem at hand. Who are the stakeholders? Where are the barriers, opportunities, and missing links?  Network mapping provided us attendees the opportunity to increase awareness and understanding of systems behind social issues, such as education, health, and poverty alleviation.

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