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Networks of Responsibility and the Future of Social Good

Taking the stage at her organization’s 2014 conference, Independent Sector CEO Diana Aviv delivered a speech laying out her solution for the entrenched and entangled issues facing our communities: pulling together across sectors to magnify our impact and achieve goals impossible to reach on our own. In this excerpt, she details a practical concept nonprofits can use to kick-start the collaborative culture she envisions.

Today’s challenges call for leaders willing to—and capable of—breaking the centrifugal forces that narrow our vision or limit our shared dream of a world that guarantees meaning in old age; provides safe playgrounds and verdant parks; respects the culture and traditions of people from all walks of life; and promotes the most noble ideals of pluralism and democratic practice through the freedom of assembly and expression. They will recognize that not only is our world interconnected, but that our work is interdependent. Success will never be achieved in a vacuum. It requires a powerful collective effort.

...We have an opportunity, here and now, to create the most robust, powerful social good infrastructure ever imagined. We are, indeed, the lucky ones. Future shores beckon. I stand before you to ask: how will we reach them? One starting point is to find what’s working in each of our communities and use it as a springboard to launch all of us forward. Another involves forming “networks of responsibility.”

Our founder, John Gardner, used this term to describe the ebb and flow of connections used to rally behind a cause. Well- informed, committed individuals and organizations gather to fight for what they believe is right and, in the process, create a narrative of engagement that deepens ties, strengthens bonds.

Connections between us and outside the sector need not look like a spider web riven by wind. Instead, imagine if every entity in this room represented one sturdy node in a vast, glistening web of connections. Our communities, one by one, would be more resilient, making us all stronger together. Our “networks of responsibility” might include any number of very different players. I’ll highlight three:

Number One: People Networks

Millions of individuals want to make a difference. Fueled by immediate access to readily available data, many bypass organizations and take action by swarming in loose networks around a common cause.

"Not only is our world interconnected, our work is interdependent."

Swarms can propel you swiftly toward a cause or charge at you full force. If we are committed to listening closely, responding in real time, and adapting our platforms to accommodate their input, I’d wager that we can be more powerful than ever imagined. Why not lean in and connect in ways that matter to both us and them?

Capitalizing on virtual networks will be difficult. We’ll have to invest in both the technological tools and the attendant skill sets needed to tap them, but the payoff can be epic.

Number Two: Business Allies

Corporate America is increasingly a part of the world in which we operate. They are concerned about fostering a strong, stable talent pool for their business as well as exploring ways to encourage their employees’ interests in serving a cause. Others are concerned about their brand, in light of consumers’ growing interest in corporate behavior. Still others recognize the need to steward the limited resources on which their products depend.

Working with corporations will require artful choices about when to act as a partner and when to press for change. Who better than you to serve as a bridge between community and business interests? You are on the ground. You understand the nuances: how a “food desert” impacts migrant families or how a noisy loading dock disrupts a nearby nature preserve. You also know the key players and, most importantly, you understand what’s at stake: people’s quality of life and the natural world.

Number Three: Government Partners

Many problems we face are so big that we cannot solve them alone—or even with business. Instead, we must turn (as one should in a healthy democracy) to the public officials who represent the citizenry. When the federal government grinds to a halt, we owe it to the people we serve to demand that policy makers soldier on through the morass.

At the same time, we might direct our energies to the state, city, and local levels. Some of you already do this. For those who don’t, playing this role requires agile organizations with nimble networks and a willingness to engage board members, volunteers, and other stakeholders. Your vantage point in the community is invaluable to shaping responsible public policy. You understand how a zoning law could hurt a rural, underserved neighborhood or how fluoride in the water impacts impoverished people.

Fraternity, Advocacy, Compromise: Diana Aviv on speaking truth and seeking common ground 

In 2014, Aviv addressed an intimate gathering of GCN member leaders, providing an opportunity to hear a front-line policy advocate discuss legislative developments impacting nonprofits and philanthropy, and get her perspective on how nonprofits can support efforts to affect policy. Read more

Fellow travelers, we can’t keep plugging away at our own pace in a world changing at warp speed. And we can’t embrace the status quo if we hope to solve the daunting problems threatening our future.

Change is never easy. It involves hard work and often vexing choices against the constraints of time, energy, and resources. But shying away from the future only further diminishes our effectiveness and our ability to make a real difference in the long run. Spanish poet Antonio Machado said, “Travelers, there is no path … paths are made by walking.”

If the road we’re traveling doesn’t lead to the future we want, it’s time to set out on a new path. I don’t have the map and I don’t have all the answers. Not by a long shot! No one does. But this community has an abundance of talented people who’ve demonstrated tremendous successes. We should study these efforts, share them far and wide, so that we might all capitalize on what’s working.

 

Diana Aviv is president and CEO of Independent Sector, a national leadership network for nonprofits, foundations, and corporations committed to advancing the common good.

 

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