Nathalie Kylander in Stanford Social Innovation Review: Catalytic Collaboration

CATALYTIC COLLABORATION: Path-breaking organizations, working together in a new way, might just transform the nonprofit sector.

The problems that nonprofits seek to address seem to be getting more entrenched and complicated by the day. NASA named August 2016 the warmest August in 136 years of modern recordkeeping. The US Census Bureau recently released data that confirms the persistence of gross economic inequality (despite nominal middle class gains). And in the midst of the US presidential election cycle, numerous polls show that Americans have shockingly low levels of trust in public institutions such as the media and Congress. It will take collaborative efforts to solve these issues—but even collaborations designed to achieve collective impact have limitations.

There is some good news, though. Think of how the iPhone and Wikipedia took existing technologies and created something transformative. In a similar way, an emerging approach to social change may be able to help nonprofits work together to create something far greater than the sum of their parts. e call this approach “catalytic collaboration,” and we “discovered” it through talking to the leaders of a diverse set of 30 nonprofits about the ways they work and the potential they see for seeding unprecedented, sweeping change. All of the organizations we studied are committed to collaboration, but only a handful, we realized are emerging as truly catalytic collaborators. These organizations are exemplary in displaying four essential behaviors:

  1. Prioritizing learning: Catalytic collaborators are intently interested in creating knowledge for the betterment of their entire field. They focus on not just learning for evaluation, but field-relevant learning, about both broad trends that influence the social problem at hand and failed past attempts to tackle it. This focus forms the basis for innovation, transformation, and sustainable impact.
  2. Systems thinking and acting: Catalytic collaborators are intentional in their efforts to understand and address the full chain of factors that contribute to their issue at a systems level, including the ecosystem of relevant players.
  3. Democratizing access to assets: Catalytic collaborators focus on equitable access to assets rather than on individual ownership. To ensure this access, they create or leverage open source technology and platforms.
  4. Building long-term, diverse, transformational relationships: Catalytic collaborators inclusively and deliberately bring together unusual suspects. They seek to build mutual trust, respect, and complementary activities over time, and foster transformational relationships across a wide range of stakeholders. 

Other writers in SSIR have highlighted some aspects of this approach in isolation, such as the importance of humble network leaders who cultivate trust-based relationships, the value of a systems mindset, and the role of information sharing and learning (specifically for evaluation’s sake) in collective impact. However, we believe that in order to be truly transformative, an organization must work to ensure that all four traits are present, and working in a way that amplifies the impact of each one.

Who Are the Catalytic Collaborators?

What follows are very brief profiles of four emerging catalytic collaborators. Each embodies a combination of the four behaviors outlined above, even if a single trait is clearly dominant. Indeed, we have found that many catalytic collaborators display one or two of the four behaviors more strongly, while others’ strengths lie more in another of the four. We expect that over time, these organizations will strengthen their performance across all four dimensions.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the example organizations that follow are also among the first to leverage the potential of current socio-economic shifts toward democratization, including: 1) the rise of the sharing economy (which promotes access over assets); 2) increased recognition of the importance of networks (and decreased relevance of organizational boundaries and the organization as a distinct entity); 3) growing interest in systems thinking and systems leadership; and 4) the decentralization and digitization of knowledge and information.