Building Adaptive Capacity Through Collaborative Impact

by guest blogger, Sarah Francey, Mount Royal University Facilitating Social Innovation student


Building adaptive capacity through collaborative impact

On March 6, Mount Royal University students in the Facilitating Social Innovation course were tasked with uncovering how CCVO can support nonprofits in Calgary to adapt and innovate – build adaptive capacity – through disruptive and transformational periods. The format, a World Café Community Conversation hosted by CCVO, was made possible through a partnership with Mount Royal University.


The fundamentals of collaboration and adaptive capacity

CCVO member organizations engaged in this discussion were encouraged to explore systems-level thinking to tackle the political, economic, social and technological factors that are affecting the current operating environment for the nonprofit sector. One participant put the situation in brazen terms, stating “[the current non-profit environment is]… sad, precarious and risky, with organizations facing no choice but to change. It’s a third world sector, with limited access to resources, monopolized by the aspirations of donors”. This put in perspective that many nonprofits are battling for attention and relevance, even with admirable missions. While this brought to light that it’s likely to time to start leveraging the power and resources of the sector as a catalyst for sustainability and social good, another participant mused “Are we naturally trained to share?”

This question deeply resonated with me –  is sharing inherent? In some cases, absolutely, but we can lose our ability to share due to our pride and ego. It can be natural to strive to accomplish personal goals that are intrinsically motivated. When this happens, our needs inherently come before our pursuits, and as an unintended result, we lessen our desire to share. We see this happening in the nonprofit sector, with some organizations so driven to succeed in pursuit of highly specific missions, they can lose track of the other organizations tackling similar social issues, often operating in silos instead of working together for the greater good. As one participant commented, “the current nonprofit environment fosters competition over collaboration, forcing organizations into isolation”.

A large part of building adaptive capacity, as proposed by one CCVO member, is the need to remove the ego to embrace collaboration in the nonprofit sector. This insight brings to light that the dynamics of adaptation lie in innovation. Sometimes we think of innovation of massive, system disrupting changes, and sometimes it is. On the other hand, change and innovation can sometimes be small revelations, concepts of sharing, humility, empathy, and removing the ego, that can lead to progressive changes.


A theoretical approach

Another participant suggested, collaboration is often avoided because of self-determination, low risk tolerance and a high amount of conservatism, making organizations more likely to revert back to standard practices. Organizations will need to think in terms of long-term strategic collaborative to create sustained change. A collaborative approach can leverage collective resources to address oversights that may have been missed, bringing ideas from conception to reality, and helping to address present day issues while planning for the future.

When asked “what opportunities do you see for the non-profit sector to innovate and move beyond traditional ways of operating and partnering?” many of the World Café participants acknowledged collective impact as an effective approach to innovation. They suggested that collective impact works to reduce competition, increase organizational alignment, and helps to develop a familiarity with adaptive capacity. Collective impact is an emerging framework from the Stanford Social Innovation Review that aims to tackle deeply entrenched and complex social problems. This framework is an innovative and structured approach to making collaboration work across government, business, philanthropy, nonprofit organisations, and citizens to achieve significant and lasting social change. The five main pillars of collective impact include:

  • participants having a joint agenda,
  • measuring results consistently,
  • mutually reinforcing activities,
  • continuous communication, and
  • having a backbone organization to serve the entire initiative and coordinate participating organizations.

Collective impact serves as a means to bring together common missions and help them realize their full potential in a highly collaborative manner. CCVO operates as a backbone organization by giving voice to critical issues, strengthening the effectiveness and capacity of organizations, and building connections across the sector. They are a suiting catalyst to foster adaptive and collaborative capacity in non-profit organizations, as CCVO draws on the rich knowledge existing in our community.

John Kania and Mark Kramer, the developers of the collaborative impact framework emphasise the importance of collaboration by stating, “… we believe that there is no other way society will achieve large-scale progress against the urgent and complex problems of our time, unless a collective impact approach becomes the accepted way of doing business.” This sentiment was mirrored through many of the discussions at the World Café, with participants suggesting employing humility as a way to embrace collaborative impact, and a realization that the need to adapt in rapidly changing economic, political, and technological environments.

As a student observer, my biggest personal takeaway was the resilient and hopeful nature of the participants. They were not scared to talk about change or innovation; in fact, they seemed to embrace it. With an enormous amount of relevant and personal insights, they displayed both vulnerability and strength in sharing their varying opinions and acknowledging those of others. As I find great interest in the nonprofit sector, the World Café was an exciting opportunity to learn more about the current nonprofit environment and the prospective challenges that we can evolve and strengthen from.

As the sector moves into a transition of change, it’s important that both organizations and individuals assume constructive intent when working to overcome obstacles and realize opportunities. This guiding mantra may help to navigate the daunting task of reimagining a downtrodden nonprofit environment without feeling completely overwhelmed. Where there is a will, there’s a way, and there is an extraordinarily mighty will in the sector. If fundamental concepts like collaboration and sharing are explored, adaptive capacity will likely increase. We need to start thinking not only of organizations can be better, but how can we be better together?

Many thanks to CCVO and its members to allow the Facilitating Social Innovation students to get involved in such a wonderful community engagement event and encouraging us to realize our potential as change-makers in Calgary!