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Over the weekend, people and organizations at the forefront of social change gathered in San Diego at The Collaborative, hosted by the team at Stay Classy.
According to the website, The Collaborative “brings together hundreds of the top social innovators to share ideas around driving social progress.” As a participant, I found myself in the company of people who are working to solve some of the world’s most pressing, complex problems. We talked about ending poverty; protecting human rights; advocating for animals; feeding the world with healthy, sustainable, and ethical food; educating our children; supporting our veterans; and caring for our planet. No small topics and no simple solutions.
The Collaborative isn’t your typical conference. In the opening session, we were promised no PowerPoint presentations. There were very few talking heads, but rather panels of experts having candid conversations, sharing their experiences and views. People approached topics from different directions and ended up in different places. No one seemed to mind disagreeing, or getting into a debate. We didn’t solve all the world’s problems or tie anything up with a nice, tidy bow. The dialogue, however, was smart, forward looking, messy, and provocative – and passions were high.
Having reflected for a few days, two themes stand out to me:
First, laser-focus on making an impact is more important than hitting a prescribed rate of return. This narrative has been playing out for ages, and in the last few years has become an increasingly hot topic as a new generation of nonprofits, like Adam Garone’s Movember, has committed to investing aggressively in order to generate revenue aggressively, and ultimately quicken the pace of change. There’s an underlying feeling of benevolent impatience that has as much to do with eliminating hunger and curing cancer as it does with applying business savvy to social change. As social enterprise and cause marketing programs continue to proliferate rapidly, nonprofits and NGOs no longer have exclusive rights on doing good. When public perception and age-old rating criteria slow the ability of these organizations to achieve their mission and make the world a cleaner, safer, healthier place, the time seems right for some disruption of the good old system.
And secondly, at a gathering of “social innovators” called “The Collaborative,” the tension between collaboration and radical innovation within large organizations wasn’t ignored. Early on, a panelist pointed out that collaboration often comes with a mandate to hear every voice, examine every option, and ultimately come to an agreement on next steps. This doesn’t lend itself well to meaningful innovation. Large nonprofits and NGOs aren’t historically known for being on the cutting-edge, and while the problems we’re solving are complicated, innovation doesn’t have to be. During a panel about this topic, Helene Gayle, the CEO of Care, told a story of chicken farmers who kept losing their chickens in floods. The innovation: try farming ducks, they float. When innovating seems beyond my brain power or time allocation, I’m going to ask myself, “What is my duck? What is the common sense pivot that can make a big difference in my result?”
I left The Collaborative feeling like the collective “we” is moving in the right direction. The commitment to improving the world’s condition and the ever-increasing fervor with which we are creating change was inspiring and impressive. Thanks to everyone who participated in The Collaborative, and to everyone who innovates for social good every day.