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MARKETING: Collaboration strengthens nonprofits, business, government

Creative Industries
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There are many reasons to love South Carolina. Our state's vibrant cities, beautiful rural areas, moderate climate and rich cultural traditions continue to draw new residents. We live in the smallest state in the South land-wise, yet are the ninth fastest growing state in the country. At the same time, we have complex social issues that need solving: poverty, homelessness, animal welfare, literacy, basic health care, and equality for women and minorities.

Kevin SmithThe good news is that in our philanthropic state, there is no shortage of organizations working to help those in need. In fact, there are more than 35,000 nonprofits in South Carolina. Collectively, they have over $40 billion in assets. With so many good people expending such vast resources to help myriad causes, one can begin to question our progress. Granted, many of our issues are centuries in the making; and as a result, have deep roots that need to be addressed.

Still, I believe we can do better. We have the scale, commitment and resources, so what's preventing greater progress? Like any business, nonprofits have competition. In fact, the mission-driven compassion present in so many nonprofits often makes competition intense. Competition for funding, press, and talent are working against too many well-intentioned organizations.

Fortunately, there is better way forward. Collective Impact is a structured approach to addressing entrenched social problems. It stresses collaboration across nonprofit organizations, businesses and government to bring about lasting social change. The issues facing South Carolina demand cooperation and collaboration, not competition. Collective Impact requires participants to uphold five key principles:

1.            Developing a common agenda – articulating a shared vision of the change the group is working to achieve.

2.            Developing a shared measurement – agreeing on what constitutes success and how to measure and quantify it.

3.            Mutually reinforcing activities – coordinating a plan of action to ensure activities are aligned and productive.  

4.            Continuous communication – nurturing trust through transparency, regular discussion and conflict resolution.  

5.            A backbone organization – supporting the group infrastructure with a separate organization dedicated to ensuring ongoing momentum and impact.

I realize these principles can seem daunting, but then again, so are the problems they can solve. Collective Impact initiatives are being implemented with success in places like Memphis, Tenn. where Memphis Fast Forward is creating better jobs, a better educated workforce, a safer community, and a more fiscally sound government. Opportunity Chicago helped 5,000 residents of public housing find living wage jobs in five years. Stand Up Summerville has engaged 25 community stakeholders in an anti-childhood obesity initiative that significantly reduced the body mass index (BMI) of school children in Summerville, Mass. 

These initiatives and others like them share a characteristic linchpin, continuous communication. Without effective communication among partners, the disparate workforces of a collective cannot develop a common agenda and engage in mutually reinforcing activities. Meanwhile, communications aimed at those beyond the collaborative are key to public and governmental support as well as sustainability.

As much as continuous communication is key to success, broad-ranging partnerships make communications inherently difficult. Be that as it may, a shared vision can provide a tangible motivator to persist. To that end, here are some ways to work toward success:

1.            Begin developing a common agenda with an offsite meeting at a neutral location led by a facilitator.

2.            Have regularly scheduled meetings to report on progress and identify barriers to success.

3.            Establish a mechanism for internal communications, be it email, an electronic dashboard, or a combination of the two.

4.            Hire a communications manager as part of the backbone organization, and make intra-organizational communications their full-time job.

5.            Understand that continuous course correction is standard.    

If you manage a nonprofit or serve on the board of one, I urge you to consider a Collective Impact agenda. Open dialogue with other organizations with missions similar or related to yours. It's time for our community to start communicating, leveraging expertise, and triangulating the issues our state must overcome. Let's invite one another to a common table and begin crafting a shared vision of all we can accomplish together. 

Kevin Smith is a partner of Riggs Partners, a Columbia-based marketing agency. Reach him at

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