Compelling Collective Impact by Building New ‘Boxes’

Over the past couple of weeks I have been mulling over the following question; in what ways can/should the outcomes of a NPO’s program, initiative or service be amenable to creating new ‘boxes’?

At present, NPOs often have the best vantage point for identifying gaps in existing programs to address the needs of their beneficiaries.  An immigrant serving agency may be the first to identify immigrant seniors as a group with unique needs.  An animal shelter may need more space to house increasing numbers of rescued animals.  A community league may be the first to notice demographic trends impacting school closures in the community. Each has its own ‘box’.

But is it possible for each of the NPOs to create a new box that includes the others?   

After having lunch with Bruce Randall, Executive Director of the Calgary Region Immigrant Employment Council (CRIEC), and listening to his definition of a successful program, I think it can be done.

Success for Bruce goes beyond satisfying outcomes and targets for his particular programs.  Instead, Bruce believes success is attained by intentionally aligning CRIEC program inputs, activities, outputs, and outcomes with broader community outcomes to maximize impact through collective efforts.

However, we need to acknowledge the loftiness of this approach because funders can be rigid in the use of their funds and measurement of program outcomes.  Quite often, funders want to ensure a particular pot of funds allocated to address a certain need has had the intended impact.

The question then becomes; how do we create outcomes and measures that will not constrict or constrain an NPO’s ability to pursue meaningful collaborations that could lead to collective impact?

In addition to my lunch with Bruce, I was a participant in a workshop conducted by Ed Marchak of Marchak Consulting, in which we examined and challenged how outcomes, outputs, inputs, and their measures are commonly defined.  Ed artfully disentangled these concepts (outcomes, outputs, inputs, activities, outcome measures, reach, etc.) from each other, making them easier to practically apply. More importantly for me, I walked away with a new question; how can a particular program or initiative contribute to the outcomes of other programs and initiatives running concurrently in the community?

One answer found in recent for-profit literature, is to create new ‘boxes’.  Alan Iny, in his book entitled Thinking in New Boxes: A New Paradigm for Business Creativity, believes we need to start building new boxes rather than merely thinking outside of our current box.   His ideas and the examples he uses to illustrate his point are as compelling for an entrepreneur as they are for an executive director. In the Six Pixels of Separation podcast entitled SPOS #374 – Inside The Box Outside? Outside The Box? New Boxes With Alan Iny Mitch Joel asks him to provide a real world example and Iny proceeds to tell listeners about BIC.

Originally, BIC manufactured and sold pens and over time introduced innovations like pens with erasable ink or multiple colors.  However, Iny asks listeners to imagine the discussion in the boardroom when the first suggestion to manufacture lighters or razors was introduced.  At the time it may have seemed like a crazy idea but its mere discussion began the shift from a small BIC ‘box’ (disposable pens manufacturer) to a new larger BIC ‘box’ (disposable products manufacturer).  It’s easy to find numerous examples of ‘new boxes’ in the for-profit context but can it be recreated in the not-for profit context?

A Hypothetical New Box

Let’s return to the three NPOs that have identified needs of their particular beneficiary groups; the immigrant serving agency (immigrant seniors), animal shelter (space for animals), and community league (declining population resulting in school closures).  How could these three seemingly unrelated NPO missions combine for collective impact while still achieving outcomes for their particular beneficiary group?  In short, how could they create a new ‘box’?

Perhaps the community league can provide space in an empty school for the animal shelter thereby maintaining a building that would otherwise fall into disrepair.  At the same time, the animal shelter could provide access to animals for a program designed to help reduce the isolation of immigrant seniors. Immigrant seniors and their accompanying families may see the neighborhood and decide to live there, revitalizing the community.

Now, immediately after reading this idea did you begin to list the reasons why it wouldn’t work?  Or did you start thinking about ways it could?

CRIEC’s New Box

In Alberta, many for-profit organizations will grant community access to the considerable expertise, experiences and skills of their workforces through company sponsored volunteer programs.  For NPOs, it is an invaluable opportunity to leverage additional resources for their beneficiaries.  However, CRIEC’s team took it one step further.  They
organized volunteers from partner for-profit organizations and from its beneficiary base to build houses for Habitat for Humanity.  CRIEC beneficiaries had the opportunity to polish their networking skills while cultivating potential employment opportunities (CRIEC outcome) while providing hours of work contributing to the goal of ending homelessness (Habitat for Humanity outcome and broader community outcome).

The Main Point:  New boxes exist and may be easier to build than we initially believe. However, it requires all NPO constituents (NPO funders, donors, volunteers, employees, partners and beneficiaries)   to rethink the scope of the outcomes of their initiatives, programs and services.


About Darcy McDonald

Exploring the intersection between social innovation and evaluation.

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