“Give me a lever, a fulcrum, and a place to stand, and I will move the world.” ~ Archimedes
As a Greek American, I am a recipient of a rich heritage of philosophical thought, scientific innovation, and religious optimism. As a consultant, I am privileged to refer myself and others to the insights and contemporary application of the collective wisdom posited in this valuable Hellenic inheritance. The famous axiom of Archimedes (cited above) is an ancient adage that easily comes to mind when advocating the contemporary principle of community investment to nonprofit leaders interested in advancing high impact philanthropic models for societal change.
Archimedes is generally considered one of the greatest mathematicians of antiquity. Born in the city of Syracuse (287-212 BC) to an astronomer named Phidias, Archimedes developed into a respected physicist, engineer, and inventor. Although few details of his life are known, the Greek polymath is credited with approximating the mathematical constant of pi, inventing the helix, calculating the volume of the universe, and discovering the principles of buoyancy.
Archimedes is also recognized (some believe Aristotle) as being the first to employ geometric calculations to elucidate the fundamental principles of leverage (On the Equilibrium of Planes). While he did not actually invent the device known as the fulcrum, his outlandish claim about its potential is a useful metaphor for discussing how modest degrees of leverage, applied with precision to key problematic community structures, can actually yield high degrees of positive impactful change.
Leverage is essentially the ability to influence a system, or an environment, in a way that multiplies the outcome effort without a corresponding increase in the consumption of resources. Identified as one of the six simple machines of the Renaissance, a lever is an apparatus consisting of a rigid rod that pivots on a hinge, or fulcrum at a fixed location. A leverage point is the location in a system’s structure where an intervention – a lever – can be applied with a high degree of confidence. In other words, leverage is the advantageous condition, of employing a relatively small amount of force/cost to yield a relatively high level of impact/return.
Nonprofit leaders face ever-increasing pressure to demonstrate how their organizations exert strategic, cost-effective, and high impact influence upon various societal privations. To successfully do so, however, a robust model is needed to assess current practices, measure trends, identify goals, collect impact evidence, and clarify the most promising steps forward. The principle of leverage, elucidated 2,500 years ago by Archimedes, provides such a framework.
In addition to supplying a valuable methodology for strategic engagement, the rubrics of leverage have much to offer leaders of philanthropic institutions who strain to generate cost-effective solutions to complex societal/community problems. Hindered by economic scarcity and political constraints, local charities, faith, and other nonprofit organizations have long focused on low instead of high impact leverage changes. Greeted with some degree of success, the overall verdict is that most of these interventions have provided only superficial results. Rather than determine the best locations to apply their donor-funded interventions, change-focused programs have fixated on symptoms rather than root causes. At best, such efforts produced short-term results, and, at worse, negatively exacerbated underlying conditions.
Conversely, innovative nonprofit leaders have employed systems-thinking and low-input/high-outcome models of collective partnerships to effectively discern the root causes underlying many societal privations. System thinking is a valuable stratagem for identifying where (location) and how actions/changes in structures can lead to significant and enduring improvements. Systems thinking utilizes habits, designs, and conceptual tools to develop an understanding of the interdependent structures of dynamic arrangements.
The value of system thinking for strategic philanthropic action is readily evident. While small force(s) applied at low leverage point(s) result in small changes, similar force(s) applied at higher leverage point(s), produce greater impact(s) in system behavior. By linking leverage and systems thinking nonprofit leaders can more effectively target high-impact leverage points to resolve root causes of difficult problems. In this fashion the principle of economy can be enjoyed to philanthropic interventions, thereby enjoying the highest level of results from the smallest deployment of well-focused actions.
Shifting from isolated impact to collective impact is not merely a matter of encouraging more collaboration partnerships. It requires a systematic approach that focuses on strategic organizational alignment, mission affinity, problem analysis, trust, and ongoing robust evaluation. Few organizations, however, have the ability for such strategic implementation. As a result, many charitable agencies often find themselves competing with those with whom they are best aligned to collaborate. For authentic partnerships to be forged this “silo-thinking’ mentality must be replaced with mission-aligned nonprofit networks that strategically tackle common community problem on multiple fronts.
The United Way is a sterling example of such high impact collective leverage. The world’s largest privately funded nonprofit, the United Way engages people in nearly 1,800 communities across more than 40 countries and territories worldwide. Through global as well as local partnerships with business, civic, faith, and other nonprofit organizations, the agency strives to advance high impact solutions to community problems in education, finance, and health.
In 1996, the United Way made a significant contribution to the field of collective philanthropic leverage by developing and adopting an outcome-based evaluation model of program metrics. As a result of gathering tangible evidence concerning societal outcomes rather than organizational outputs, United Way helped agencies improve their services, increase donor satisfaction/confidence, and thereby exert greater philanthropic impact.
Research suggests that collaboration can allow nonprofit leaders to exponentially exert greater leverage on solving societal/community problems than they can ever hope to do on their own. Unfortunately, the nonprofit sector has more frequently been characterized by an isolated orientation toward funding a solution embodied within a single organization. Three (3) primary suspicions motivate the hesitation of organizations to pursue such strategic arrangements, namely: (a) loss of institutional fundraising advantage, (b) mission mismatch, (c) infrastructural over-load, and (d) lack of trust. As a result, millions of nonprofits in America compete with one another for ever-dwindling streams of revenue to advance independent solutions to major social problems.
Approximately 1.4 million nonprofits are currently registered in the United States (National Center for Charitable Statistics). Total fundraising contributions to these entities rose for the fourth consecutive year in 2013 (Giving USA Foundation 2014). Including religious congregations, the Nation’s 1.4 million charitable organizations were supported by 37 million individual donors ($184 billion), 400,000 corporate sponsors ($12 billion), and countless community foundations ($27 billion).
All told, nonprofit agencies received $335.17 billion in 2013, composing 5.4 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). Unfortunately, the potential for duplication and waste of scarce human and financial resources is unavoidable. When compared with the for-profit sector (3-10%) the fundraising cost-to-implementation ratio of non-profits (25-40%) is dreadfully inefficient and may account for the low social impact of many nonprofit ventures.
In their book Forces for Good (2007; 2012), Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant describe six practices that differentiate the most effective nonprofit organizations from their counterparts:
- Work with government and advocate for policy change
- Harness market forces and see business as a powerful partner
- Convert individual supporters into evangelists for the cause
- Adapt to the changing environment
- Share leadership, empowering others to be forces for good
The sixth (6th) and perhaps most vital characteristic of an effective nonprofit is the organization’s desire/ability to build and nurture nonprofit networks by treating other groups as allies (Forces for Good, 2007; 2012). Such collective partnerships typically have five (5) conditions that produce true alignment and lead to highly impactful results: (a) clarity of vision, (b) focused activities, (c) outcomes evaluation, (d) trust building, and (e) infrastructural leadership (OINOS Consulting).
Clarity of Vision
High impact community philanthropy requires clarity of specific goal(s) wherein each partner organization commits to a shared vision of change that clearly identifies the problem and outlines the joint approach to its solution. While independent agencies can choose to address community problems through isolated initiatives, collective impact partnerships require that differing perspectives be discussed and resolved. Since disagreement may actually provide the value of diverse lenses, every participant need not agree with every dimension of a problem and its respective solution. All partnering agencies, however, must ultimately consent on the: (a) primary vision, (b) specific goal(s), and (c) anticipated impact of the societal/community change.
The multiple causes of societal/community problems and the components of their solutions cannot be addressed by uncoordinated actions among isolated organizations. High impact nonprofit partnerships are, therefore, characterized by collaborative synergy. While collective activity does not require all participants do the same thing, it does encourage each to undertake a set of skills/activities that correspond to their respective expertise. Such mutually supportive differentiation – in coordination with the actions of others – produces impact that would never have been achieved if each organization were to work alone.
Apart from specifying a clear vision and outlining a clear set of activities, the realization of high-impact philanthropic goals requires the development of distinct indicators of success prior to implementation. This, in turn, requires empirical, evidence-based interpretations of the social, political, and/or economic context in which a joint project will be deployed. Only by attending to carefully crafted milestones that signal positive impact can success be ultimately achieved.
Outcome measurement is a systematic way to assess the extent to which a program has achieved its intended results. How has the philanthropic leverage changed the lives of individuals, families, and/or community? Has the program made a societal difference? What is the degree of the project’s impact on the community?
Developing a shared measurement system that provides answers to the aforementioned interrogates is essential for achieving high impact societal/community change. Agreement on a common agenda is illusory without agreement on the ways success will be measured and reported. Collecting data and using indicators to consistently measure outputs and impact outcomes across all participating organizations ensures that all efforts remain aligned. It also enables partners to develop into a learning community that hold each other accountable.
With 150,000 copies in circulation, Measuring Program Outcomes is the most widely used measurement guide in the United States. Published by the United Way in 1996, the manual promotes the use of logic models to clarify and communicate outcomes, thereby expanding and strengthening the role of nonprofit organizations in their ability to provide high impact community services. The manual outlines a step-by-step process for: (a) specifying program outcomes, (b) developing measurable indicators, (c) identifying data sources and data collection methods, (d) analyzing and reporting findings, and (e) using outcome information to increase service effectiveness and communicate program value.
The 4th characteristic trait shared among effective nonprofit consortiums is trust. The struggle for position and power joins selfishness among the top deterrents of high-impact partnerships. To authentically collaborate, one must, therefore, be willing to advance the reputation of others. Leaders of effective nonprofit institutions exemplify such servant-leadership qualities. By placing their confidence in something other than their own talents, knowledge, and/or expertise, they nurture and demonstrate effective collaborations and are, thereby, worthy of trust.
The Building Community Philanthropy Initiative, advanced by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a worthy example of trust-building leadership. Launched in 2012, the initiative works with community partners to re-grant foundation funds in support of the overarching goal of reducing intergenerational poverty.
An important component of the Gates trust-building process is the strategic deployment of authentic communication protocols. Regular meetings, timely updates, and project dashboards are essential prerequisites. As authentic organizational relationships take time to be earned, local nonprofit leaders should strive to vigilantly emulate such authentic trust-building strategies with their respective partners.
A lack of trust generates hidden agendas and guarded communication, thereby slowing or paralyzing leaders from effective decision-making. A lack of trust stymies innovation and productivity. Leaders who stimulate confidence, fuel creativity, and engender loyalty, on the other hand, guide high-impact community partnerships. They intentionally coordinate goals, strategic action, and technology to seamlessly communicate and connect. Only by amplifying each other’s efforts in such a climate of trust do they and the constituents they serve enjoy the benefits of tangible high-impact outcomes.
The 5th and final quality of effective nonprofit collectives is the existence of infrastructural leadership, the need for which cannot be overstated. Successful philanthropic partnerships often select/designate one organization to take the lead of their collective process. While government policymakers, advocates, and agencies often broker community efforts strategically networked nonprofits may also choose a stronger backbone institution to provide lead coordination, guidance, and logistical expertise for their collective initiative’s infrastructural requirements.
High impact collaborations require leaders and staff with a very specific set of skills who are willing to facilitate the work of their respective nonprofit partners. Such leaders place their organizations at the service of others, providing backbone project management, logistical support, facilitation, and administrative coordination for an entire collaborative enterprise.
Challenged by his local sovereign to prove his boast about leverage, Archimedes arranged to single-handedly launch the world’s largest ship called the “Syracusia.” Intended as a gift to an Egyptian ruler, the king told Archimedes that if he could move the 2,000-ton ship into the water, he would issue an edict that would insist that anything the mathematician would subsequently suggest was to be believed without question.
Using a series of ropes, pulleys, levers, and cogs Archimedes employed the principle of leverage to lift the newly constructed three-mast vessel. With the king and the populace looking on, the lone mathematician quietly turned the handle of a helix and gently placed the monstrous vessel into the Syracuse harbor.
Philanthropy is a powerful lever that should be strategically deployed. Derived from the Greek words “philos,” which means loving and “anthropos,” which means mankind, philanthropy can be broadly defined as love for humanity.
Apart from having an inimitable place from which to stand, America’s nonprofit institutions have a unique opportunity to express this leverage of love by serving the sick, disenfranchised, uneducated, and poor. To effectively address these and other complex societal/community problems, however, they must strive to do so by advancing the principles of high impact collectivity.
Only by collaborating rather than competing can humanity hope to “move the earth,” and allow it to set sail on the high seas of spiritual, physical, intellectual, and economic development.