Part II: Collaboration is the Jet Fuel for Social Innovation

Escaping our silos to achieve deep impact

SiloThis post is the second part of our blog series that is taking a deeper look at collaboration. Read part  I  “Why Collaboration Matters: The Platform for Social Innovation” here.

The world is a-buzz with social innovation these days. So much so that Roger Martin, Dean of Rotman School of Business, made some bold categorical statements in his recent essay, “The Trouble with Winning”, for Stanford Social Innovation Review’s 10th anniversary issue:

“It is fair to say that times have changed. Social innovation is now super-cool…Social innovation has gone from the fringes to center stage. In important ways, it has won. But winning isn’t an unalloyed good. It brings challenges that must be recognized and overcome if the movement is to continue to prosper… When anything exceeds forecasts, expectations skyrocket…”

As a result, Martin cautions:

“Increasing numbers of people believe that social entrepreneurs can solve the world’s problems. No one can solve all the world’s problems. Social innovators can work together with governments, businesses, and NGOs to tackle global problems and make progress in solving them. This should be the message of all those who support and celebrate social innovation.”


The Message: We Must Work Together

As Martin alludes to, solving complex problems outstrips the capacities of individual organizations and even individual sectors.  Consequently, collaborations, partnerships, and “collective impact” approaches are becoming the sine qua non for developing social change strategies, especially those tackling root causes.

While there is a long history of successful but sporadic individual cross-sector partnerships, the cultural shift towards a broad based approach – of cross-sector collaboration being the default – has been decades in the making.


An early watershed was 1992’s UN Conference on Environment & Development (UNCED) held in Rio that produced Agenda 21 calling for cross-sector partnerships:

“Agenda 21 puts most of the responsibility for leading change on national governments, but says they need to work in a broad series of partnerships with international organizations, business, regional, state, provincial and local governments, non-governmental and citizens’ groups. As Agenda 21 says, only a global partnership will ensure that all nations have a safer and more prosperous future.” – Canada’s International Institute for Sustainable Development

Don Tapscott, writing 20 years after Rio for the Martin Prosperity Institute, identified how the rise of cross-sector networks represents a major shift in tackling global challenges:

“There is a fundamental change underway regarding how global problems can be solved, and perhaps how we govern ourselves on this shrinking planet. Emerging non-state networks of civil society, private sector, government and individual stakeholders are achieving new forms of cooperation, social change and even the production of global public value. They address every conceivable issue facing humanity from poverty, human rights, health and the environment, to economic policy, war and even the governance of the Internet itself.”

If we are to address our modern world problems, then we must embrace boundary-spanning solutions, which inevitably necessitate cross-sector collaboration. Thankfully on the call for collaboration, no one sector is alone.


Survey Highlights Collaboration

The centrality of collaboration in the emerging “solution economy” is being recognized across all sectors.

In the wake of the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), known as Rio+20, many of the 800 experts polled for the GlobeScan/SustainAbility survey, viewed collaboration “as one of the few models that could catalyze solutions to the sustainable development challenges that we face at the speed and scale that we need.”

The survey additionally found that:

  • “Despite pessimism of national governments’ willingness and ability to make substantive progress on the sustainability agenda, experts overwhelmingly believe that progress requires companies collaborating with multiple actors, including governments.”
  • “Public policy advocacy and consumer engagement on sustainability topics are seen as having the most upside when addressed through multi-actor collaboration…”
  • “Nearly half of experts cite access to diverse perspectives and expertise and pooling risk as keys to the business case for collaboration; Cost reduction is not seen as a primary reason to collaborate.”


Business Leaders See Collaboration as Key to Successful Innovation

Another reinforcing study is the Global Innovation Barometer, which reported that:

“Canadian business executives identified increased collaboration as one of the keys to successful innovation. Results showed 85% of Canadian respondents would partner first to enter new markets (6% above global average), and 83% would partner to improve an existing product or service (8% above global average).”


Former Civil Servant Calls For Collaborative Government-Nonprofit Partnerships

In his article “A Social Contract for Government”, Peter Shergold, Australia’s former top civil servant, concludes that robust cross-sector collaboration is critical to the future success of social development. His article lays out the new vision:

“Until now the transformative potential of public-community relationships and the contract state has been constrained. NFPs have too often been thought of merely as outsourced providers rather than collaborative partners. If governments and their public services can move from contract managers to innovation facilitators, bold new forms of democratic governance will become possible…[NFPs] should be empowered to influence the policy parameters, administrative guidelines, and contractual conditions under which they operate. The attitude on the government side should be one of building a relationship, not managing a contract.”


United Way Shifts to Collaborative Social Innovation

Most of today’s community leaders who rose up in the ranks inherited a mindset that saw social change through the lens of the valiant efforts of individual organizations. The spirit of rugged individualism was reinforced by a challenging fundraising environment in Canada, which saw the growth of social and ecological needs expanding faster than the financial resource base.

Apex organizations like the United Way, who have the luxury of taking a sector-wide view, are helping catalyze collaboration and collective impact. For example, the United Way of Calgary recently inaugurated its Leading Boldly Network (LBN) to become a city that solves issues innovatively and collaboratively. To achieve this vision, LBN is working with nine executive directors from a diverse range of agencies to harness the collaborative power of networks in five ways:

1      Creating and weaving social ties,

2      Accessing diverse perspectives,

3      Openly building and sharing knowledge about collaborative social innovation,

4      Creating infrastructure for widespread engagement, and

5      Coordinating resources and action to make progress on complex social problems.


Collective Impact Movement Gains Momentum

CollectiveImpactLandmark thought leadership from FSG helped North American nonprofits think through a  collaboration lens. In 2011 Mark Kramer and John Kania wrote their now famous article “Collective Impact,” recognizing that large-scale social change requires broad cross-sector coordination.

Canada has quietly been a leader in this movement for over a decade, with support from Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement and their pioneering work through Vibrant Communities: a national network of leading social, civic, and business organizations that are transforming the way communities reduce poverty.

Whether in Canada or abroad, collaboration is essential to unleashing the innovations necessary to solve intractable societal issues. Fortunately, all sectors are heeding this call. In my next post, we will go beyond the why and examine the how of collaboration.


Further reading

Steve Waddell represents another Canadian leader in the field of collaboration. Waddell supports and writes about “global action networks” as a vehicle for harnessing the problem solving capabilities of diverse stakeholders. His book, Global Action Networks: Creating Our Future Together, appeared in 2011.

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Tim Draimin About Tim Draimin

Tim Draimin is the Executive Director of Social Innovation Generation (SiG)


  1. I’ve been absent for some time, but now I remember why I used to love this blog. Thank you, I will try and check back more often. How frequently you update your web site?

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