Collaboration and Non-Profit: Five Lessons Learned

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Driving customer centrictiy calls for a strong, collaborative practice--an important lesson learned from non-profits.

Our modern-day economy is being fueled by a new awareness and desire for collaboration. For example, the emerging practice of crowdsourcing involves entrepreneurs making an online appeal to a large group of people to invest in a product, service, or start-up-a production model that sidesteps traditional investment channels and gets a greater number of projects up and running.

Companies such as eBay and Craigslist have empowered consumers with collaborative consumption options, where participants are granted the financial flexibility to sign up for and share access to various products and services. In addition, emerging sectors in social lending and peer-to-peer experiences-bypassing the need for banks and other traditional financial institutions-are becoming more popular every day.

As collaborative networks and initiatives continue to stimulate the economy, organizations that are trying to engineer customer-centric approaches are recognizing the tremendous value of collaboration within their own leadership ranks. To ensure their workforces are well-organized and engaged, the most savvy leadership teams are building stronger, more collaborative frameworks designed to systematically advance their customer strategies with greater momentum.

Perhaps surprisingly, some of North America's most innovative collaborative organizations today are non-profits that have adopted a strategy called collective impact. This strategy involves the active pursuit of cross-sector commitments to embrace a common agenda aimed at solving complex problems or achieving large-scale social change. Social agencies that use a collective impact approach recognize that no single organization can tackle some of today's most challenging social issues. Instead, they are willing to set aside their individual agendas and perspectives in favor of making a broader difference one collaborative step at a time-such as joining forces with other organizations to prevent childhood obesity or put a stop to bullying.

StriveTogether, a non-profit organization in Cincinnati, is but one example of a non-profit leader that has embraced collective impact. It recently brought together 300 leaders from private and corporate foundations, city government officials, school district representatives, the presidents of eight universities, and community colleges, and the executive directors of hundreds of education-related advocacy groups to improve student achievement in education. As a result, student success in dozens of key areas has been achieved where previous efforts had failed.

Collective impact approaches are different than most common examples of 'joint efforts' or 'partnerships.' In the Stanford Social Innovation Review, authors John Kania and Mark Kramer outline the five conditions that exist for a collective impact approach:

  1. Common Agenda-Leaders share a common vision for change, including a common understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving it through agreed-upon actions.
  2. Shared Measurement-By consistently measuring results across all groups, multiple efforts are aligned, participants hold each other accountable, and together, they learn from each other's successes and failures.
  3. Mutually Reinforcing Activities-Participant activities must be differentiated while still being coordinated through a mutually reinforcing plan of action.
  4. Continuous Communication-Consistent and open communication is needed across the many participants to build trust, strengthen mutual objectives, and create a common motivation.
  5. Backbone Support-Creating and managing collective impact requires a separate organization, with staff and a separate set of skills, to serve as the backbone for the entire initiative to coordinate participating organizations and agencies.

John Edmondson, managing director of the Strive Network, delves even further to describe the difference between 'collaboration' and 'collective impact' in a recent blog: "When it comes to collective impact, community leaders and practitioners come together around their desire to improve outcomes consistently over time. The outcome serves as the true north and the partners can uncover the right practices to move the outcome over time."

While collaboration amongst leaders is nothing new, customer experience practitioners can learn from non-profit organizations by integrating collective impact strategies. This goes above and beyond the need for leadership teams to work cooperatively if they are to prioritize the voice of the customer as a strategy to effectively drive transformational change. As the concept of collective impact demonstrates, championing the customer-centric cause requires engaging multiple business units, departments, network partners, industry peers, and potentially, like-minded organizations in other industries to be successful.

Driving customer centricity is a continuous journey that calls for commitments to a goal and a strong collaborative process. There is no single department or organization that can create the large-scale change needed to implement customer-centricity. Strong organizational alignment is essential.

The power of collective impact is an important lesson learned from non-profits who are proving that the voices of many, once united under a single cause, have the power to shift the perceptions, experiences and behaviours of people around the world. This applies just as much for economic growth as it does to social progress.

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EXPERT OPINION