If You're Trying to Save the World, You Better Stick Together

Today, the average human attention span is eight seconds, or a second shorter than that of a goldfish. Shocking, isn’t it? Perhaps even more shocking, in light of this 21st century fact, is that a Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) article on “collective impact” from 2011 is still that publication’s most-read article, garnering over 100 comments (some in the past few weeks). The thesis—that large-scale social change requires broad, cross-sector coordination—rings true now more than ever. Those of us in the growing peace and security community know all too well that we cannot solve what’s happening as far away as Burundi and as close to home as Baltimore without all hands on deck. Not only do the funders in this space need to stick together, they need to foster as much collaboration as possible among grantees. 

Related: War and Peace Hall of Fame: The Funders Pushing Back Against a World of Violence

The 61 members of the Peace and Security Funders Group (PSFG) are living, breathing, practicing examples of collective impact and many are adding their own flair to the concept. At our last annual meeting, PSFG members showcased some of their impactful strategies, including directly engaging and partnering with policymakers and other “unlikely allies” (e.g., the Tea Party, veterans groups, the World Bank); making risky, creative, and collective grants; and funding locally.

While the SSIR article cited five conditions necessary for success, PSFG has identified three new things funders can do to increase their grantees’ collective impact.

First, funders should encourage and reward “collaboration” as a discrete budget line item in grant proposals. As many studies have shown and grantees know all too well, collaboration takes a whole lot of time. In fact, having a “backbone support organization” is one of the five necessary conditions for collective impact success. The Connect U.S. Fund—a now-sunset donor collaborative—was established to do just that: Over its decade-long lifespan, it disbursed $12.5 million to support collective impact efforts (some of which continue to thrive today). Funders can encourage their grantees to clearly identify collaborative opportunities and set aside staff time as part of —or better yet— in addition to their core grant proposal. Attending working group or coalition meetings to share information and contacting colleagues to coordinate actions takes time. Grantees should explicitly and realistically budget for it, while funders should explicitly support and reward these efforts.

Second, funders should do away with (or at the very least supplement) asking what is a grantee’s unique value-add. In order to maximize collective impact, the better questions to ask are: How do you work with other stakeholders and players in your field? What have been some concrete successes of your collaborations? How do you contribute to the whole? How are you using your comparative advantages to leverage your partners’ assets? How do you complement your partners? Asking these pointed questions will get grantees to continue to think in a holistic manner and understand that collaboration is valued.

Finally, funders should make collaboration and its outcomes a basis for grant renewals. Obviously, many factors will be considered—e.g., Did the grantees meet their benchmarks? Did they learn from mistakes/miscalculations and adjust strategy? Did they use funds wisely? Collaboration should be prime amongst these.

As members of any funder affinity group know, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This adage rings true in the peace and security field more than elsewhere and now more than ever. How can we hope to tackle the thorniest of 21st century global challenges—preventing atrocities, combating cybersecurity incidents, countering violent extremism (to name just a few)—if not collectively?

Alexandra I. Toma is the executive director of the Peace and Security Funders Group, a growing network of funders and philanthropists collaborating for greater impact on a range of conflict, national security, and peace-related issues.