Many experts in philanthropy have come to see collaboration as a higher form of grant making and non-profit activity. Philanthropists should join together to exert concerted effort on problems they cannot solve individually. Those grant makers who go their own way are described as “operating in silos” and are compared to “lone wolves.” Their ideas may be good but they cannot effect systemic change by themselves. The advantage of collective impact seems irresistible and most grant makers at least pay lip service to it, even if they do go their own way.
At our meetings in Toronto we spent time with and learned a lot about Pathways to Education, a highly successful organization that has more than doubled high school graduation and college attendance for the poorest people in Canadian society.
Pathways to Education has won international acclaim for its innovative approach and it is attracting great interest and investment from educators, governments and the private sector across Canada. Pathways’ greatest challenge is how to manage the rapid expansion of its operations in order to meet demand for its services.
The excitement over Pathways is hardly surprising. Generational poverty has been an intractable problem. It seems axiomatic that academic achievement will lead members of the present generation out of poverty. Once their eyes have been opened and their horizons broadened by education they will not go back.
At an operational level Pathways collaborates with teachers, education officials and boards, municipalities, volunteers and, of course, school children and their parents. It gets funding and support from the philanthropic and private sectors, individuals and different levels of government.
Pathways seems like a perfect example of collaboration as a higher form of problem solving. But is this the secret to its success?
In Toronto we were fortunate to spend time with Pathways’ creator, Carolyn Acker, and Pathways’ executive and Board leadership. The story they tell is of a vision and development of a system to give effect to this vision and then the building of a business. From this story is seems clear that the essential ingredients to Pathways success were vision and leadership. It is a familiar theme. A small group of people uniquely understand and care about the problem and have the courage and ability to do something.
We should not downplay the importance of collaboration in the Pathways’ story. The vision for Pathways came from a community health center and from years of experience with diverse groups. Pathways has engaged and used a long list of people and organizations at every step along the way. Collaboration has been more than a tool. It has been a solution.
The lesson for the Foundation is not new but nonetheless needs remembering. Our best investments will always involve collaborations of different interests. But the essential ingredients are vision and leadership and not collaboration for its own sake.