Resource Development Associates

One Small Planet

by Patricia Marrone Bennett, PhD

It is impossible to look back over the events of the past year and not viscerally feel the interconnectedness between ourselves, our families, our communities, and the rest of the world. The struggles of other countries, even other states, that once felt like distant concerns confined to the evening news now take on a different meaning. The pandemic and its economic devastation; the urgent cries for racial justice; the ever-increasing threat of wildfires, hurricanes, and other climate-change-driven disasters: these challenges belong to all of us.

In these shared challenges lies a reminder that all of our systems, be they government, nonprofit, or private sector, are also interconnected.  As we plan for the future in this new landscape, our public and private mental health systems must take into account trauma caused by the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards and climate change on low-income communities and people of color. Our philanthropic and public systems must acknowledge the many systemic barriers that impede grassroots, minority-led nonprofits as they pursue private funding and public contracts. Chambers of commerce, workforce development boards, and other entities engaged in economic and workforce development planning must contend with pandemic-driven economic impacts to both local governments and private sector businesses, as well as radical changes to the employment and commerce landscape such as increased telecommuting and the disappearance of many nonprofits and small businesses.

What will be required to see the world through this new lens? The collective impact model, in which individual donors and philanthropic foundations, nonprofit organizations, corporations invested in social responsibility, and the government work together to amplify resources and tackle complex issues spanning multiple systems, has shown great promise and garnered interest across sectors. But how do we establish the coordination mechanisms for such a broad and novel approach? This calls for design thinking.

Design thinking centers on deeply understanding those we are working to develop strategies and solutions for, questioning assumptions and potential implications, testing ideas, and refining them based on constant exploration of lessons learned. Empathy, ideation, and experimentation are fundamental here, as are creative thinking and risk-taking.

To facilitate design thinking for collective impact across the philanthropic, private, and public sectors, RDA suggests:

  • Instituting a backbone organization to support the effort by guiding vision and strategy, aligning activities, establishing shared measurement processes, building community support, and mobilizing funding;
  • Creating a diverse work group that includes representatives from all relevant public systems, industry sectors, and communities who will be impacted by potential solutions;
  • Establishing up front a clear understanding of each entity’s available assets and ability to actively engage in every step of the process, while remaining realistic about constraints and respectful of boundaries;
  • Removing linear thinking, as the process is not intended to be sequential and should evolve organically as new information comes to light and novel ideas surface; and
  • Perhaps most importantly, embracing the uncomfortable, especially not knowing and failing, as they are crucial components of a fruitful design thinking process.

RDA has ideas. If you are interested in speaking with us about collective impact and design thinking strategies, please contact us.

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