Is “Unsexy” In?

As a participant at Social Impact Exchange Conference on Scaling Impact last week, I attended a session entitled, “Scaling through systems change and collective impact.” When posed with the question,

“What is a key takeaway for funders who want to support large-scale, cross sector, collaborative social change?”

moderator Anne Kubisch of the Aspen Institute, responded with my favorite quote of the conference, declaring “Unsexy is in.”

The type of support she was referring to allows organizations to not just subsist, but to grow and scale and contribute to something larger than the sum of its parts. For organizations working on complex system reform or those trying to generate a collective impact—in which multiple types of organizations (e.g., nonprofit service providers, institutional funders, individual donors, local government, the private sector) are working toward a common goal—“unsexy” funding can serve as the “glue” that binds a multi-stakeholder initiative together and can ultimately make or break a shared effort.

Here are a few examples:

  • Support “backbone” organizations: When there are numerous stakeholders—who hopefully share common goals—it is absolutely essential for a key agent to “own” the effort. Whether that is a new, stand-alone organization, or one that is taking on a leadership role within a multi-stakeholder initiative, making sure that “backbone” player has the support and appropriate resources (e.g., technology, dedicated staff, time) is critical to the ultimate success of the effort.
  • Capacity building and Infrastructure support: Being part of a systems reform initiative takes time, and participating organizations need the appropriate infrastructure and capacity to be able to engage in a meaningful way. Capacity building funds can allow an organization involved in a collective effort to continue the excellent work they’re doing on the ground, and also to contribute to something bigger. Time out of the office, logistics coordination, and participation as part of a cohort are all activities that require compensation—lest they detract from programmatic funds.
  • Convenings: And speaking of time out of the office…convenings allow multiple stakeholders to align their goals, find consensus around metrics, and generally check in with one another to make sure their efforts are on track. Bringing people together, face to face, to address challenges and troubleshoot creative solutions is something that almost any organization will tell you is worthwhile—provided that the right people are around the table and that the time spent troubleshooting doesn’t detract from the mission-related work of the organization. These convenings should be a value add, and not a budgetary liability, to those participating.
  • Data collection systems: Once stakeholders reach consensus around metrics and indicators, it is essential to think about how this data is going to be collected and communicated. The process of data collection and reporting can be quite labor and time intensive—not to mention costly! Funding data collection training, software, or access to a shared online platform or portal might help to streamline this process, and align expectations between nonprofits, funders, and other involved parties.
  • Leadership development: So much of a nonprofit’s culture—whether it is data-driven and measures its performance meticulously, or not—is often driven by its leadership. Making sure that an organization’s leadership team has the desire to manage to impact is one thing; making sure that they have the skills to do so is another.

Such funding is typically among the hardest to raise despite its role in scaling impact. For donors concerned with maximizing the impact of their philanthropic funds, it strikes me that being an “unsexy philanthropist” may just be the way to go.