“United we stand; divided we fall.” “E pluribus Unum.”  “The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.” “Strength in numbers.” Our culture abounds with adages and mottos promoting unity, solidarity, and a sense of common purpose.  Yet at the same time, our culture and economy are built on principles of independence, individualism, and competition.

If the sector’s atomized, competitive culture weakens nonprofits, does it follow that a more coordinated, collaborative approach can help build the resilience of both individual nonprofits and the broader social sector? This tension is certainly reflected in our social sector.  You don’t have to spend much time speaking with a nonprofit leader, government funder, or foundation representative before the conversation turns to themes like the perils of our “silo mentality,” the increasingly competitive nature of pursuing private philanthropic dollars, or the growing pressure most nonprofits feel to “do more with less.”  It’s easy to envision a nonprofit universe in which too many organizations are isolated, compromised in their capacity to deliver on their missions because they must devote too much time to simply staying afloat.

The Social Impact Exchange believes that the answer is yes.  In our five years of operation, the Exchange has developed and implemented various strategies to create a marketplace in which individual and institutional philanthropic funders can find and invest in rigorously vetted nonprofit solutions seeking to scale their impact.  The Exchange was founded, in fact, to address the fragmentation that is characteristic of the sector’s prevailing funding practices.

Suffice it to say that this is challenging work. As we reflect on our experience, we are increasingly convinced that it is not enough to bring together a group of highly regarded foundations that are committed to improving health or educational outcomes, offer them a portfolio of scaling organizations, ask them to support their growth capital plans and then expect a funding marketplace to flourish.

We believe that key to a more resilient sector is to identify, understand, and strengthen its existing systems.  We’ve learned that if that we want to achieve sustained social impact in a particular area, we first have to think about – and actually map – what already exists.  By creating a map, we can assess strength and weaknesses and identify areas for with higher potential for leveraged investment.

We are piloting Communities of Interest, as a revised philanthropic capital marketplace strategy.  “COIs” bring together funders and other stakeholders with shared interest and commitment to scaled impact in a particular area like “early childhood development” or “college and career-readiness”.  We recently convened a COI focused on early childhood development in New York City.  The first order of business was to document the existing system of funders, providers, key policy opportunities, gaps in services, etc.  To do this, we commissioned both a narrative report that provided a landscape overview and a map of funders and their current and likely future interests.  The group then met to discuss the data and begin to prioritize areas of need.  Next steps will include development of a governance structure to guide process and a due diligence framework to guide nominations, assessment, and grant making.  The hope is that from this base the core group of funders and investment opportunities will grow, the early childhood system will be strengthened, and outcomes for young children will improve.

It should be noted that we are not the first to think of this approach.  There is a rapidly growing movement in the sector to leverage the power of network mapping and systems building in order to magnify social impact.  STRIVE in Cincinnati, for example, is using a collaborative framework driven by shared goals and strong evidence to ensure success from “cradle to career” for all the city’s children.  We have received guidance from colleagues such as Rick Reed, who oversees the Garfield Foundation’s involvement in RE-AMP, a coalition of 140 funders and advocates focused on a cleaner, more sustainable energy future.

At the end of the day, the challenges are too great and the solutions, no matter how effective or well-intentioned, are on their own inadequate and vulnerable.  Over and again, resilience and triumph have been borne from the efforts of a networked, aligned community.

 Anne Sherman is Vice President, Nonprofit Strategy at Social Impact Exchange at the Growth Philanthropy Network.

Antoinette La Belle is Managing Director, Network Partnerships at Social Impact Exchange at the Growth Philanthropy Network.