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Overcoming ‘Elevator Syndrome’: The Case for Cross-Sector Collaboration

[box] This blog is based on a panel session we had the honour of participating in. The session was called “The Future of Philanthropy” and was hosted by Imagine Canada.[/box]


I am a little reluctant to identify my ‘one key thing’ to the future of philanthropy because it is talked about a lot. In fact, it’s talked about so much it’s becoming kind of a cliché. But I am going to talk about because everything tells me that it’s absolutely crucial. I also firmly believe that if we master this one challenge we will be able to master a lot of the other challenges we face.  My one key thing is we need to substantially up our game on cross-sector collaboration (and its sibling, cross-pollination) – that means philanthropy, private sector, social sector, and government more effectively sharing best practices and working together.

The great irony here is:

Circumstances are Bringing Sectors Together…

“We already see for-profit social enterprises, non-profits with for-profit divisions, and for-profit companies with social missions. Traditional sector lines are blurring.”

But Our Minds Are Still Miles Apart

“Xenophobia runs rampant within public, private, non-profit, and for-profit silos. Each silo has created its own world completely foreign to inhabitants from other sectors. Visiting emissaries are always viewed with skepticism. (‘I am from the government and I’m here to help …’)”

Both quotes from “Business Models Aren’t Just For Business”, Saul Kaplan, Founder and Chief Catalyst, the Business Innovation Factory.

I call it ‘elevator syndrome’.

‘Elevator syndrome’: circumstances are bringing us together, but our minds are world's apart
‘Elevator syndrome’: circumstances are bringing us together, but our minds are world’s apart

To give you an example of just how similar our challenges are and the rich opportunities for cross-pollination, I want to focus on a recent and wonderful publication called “Breakthrough Business Models: Exponentially More Social, Lean, Integrated and Circular” by Volans.

breakthrough“Breakthrough” identifies five key mental shifts for the business world. I am going to talk briefly about four of them. I am assuming a group that has gathered to talk about the future of philanthropy are already acquainted with the fifth key mental shift, ‘social’. See if the other four resonate as well. I think if any of you have been asked to do more with less, up your social impact game, or create transformative or systems changing solutions, “Breakthrough” is talking your language.

Similar Solutions?  1) Think Exponential

“The incremental mindset focuses on making something better, while the exponential mindset makes something different. Incremental is satisfied with 10%. Exponential is out for 10X.” Mark Bonchek, Shift Thinking (Quoted in “Breakthrough” p. 4)

Similar Solutions? 2) Think Lean

“… using resources effectively, creating no waste and maximizing value across entire value networks. They must optimize value creation across all forms of capital, from conventional forms like physical and financial capital, through newly understood forms like human and intellectual capital, to tomorrow’s understanding of social, cultural and natural capital.”


“Now there is a need to pull together movements working on lean production, lean startups and frugal innovation…”

Similar Solutions?  3) Think Integrated

  • understanding the needs of present and future generations…
  • … across entire value networks;
  • measuring and managing the financial and extra-financial impacts of an organization’s value creation processes;
  • re-examining externalities— positive and negative, tangible and intangible;
  • an active consideration of how system level operating conditions can be changed for the better.

Similar Solutions?  4) Think Circular

“Going—or thinking—in circles used to be seen as a bad thing, but now concepts like the Circular Economy and Cradle-to-Cradle Design are gaining real traction. ”

This includes closed-loop value webs and impact models – restorative and regenerative by design.

Similar Challenges?  

If you are still skeptical about the relevance of the solutions, check out the problems that inspired them and see how many relate to you:

“If your business— and business model— has any of the following characteristics, it’s time to worry:

  • Top-down and hierarchical in its organization.
  • Driven by financial outcomes.
  • Linear, sequential thinking.
  • Innovation primarily from within.
  • Strategic planning largely an extrapolation from the past.
  • Risk intolerance.
  • Process inflexibility.
  • Large number of employees.
  • Controls own assets.
  • Strongly invested in the status quo.”

Salim Ismail, Exponential Organizations (Quoted in “Breakthrough” p. 13)

Why do I think it is so important to highlight the similarity between the challenges facing all the sectors? It shows:

  1. We Are Not Alone (It’s comforting – in a ‘misery loves company’ kind of way)
  2. There Are Huge Insights to be Gained From Other Sectors (Think of the insights from the great minds and millions of dollars spent on finding solutions that you can tap into)
  3. There Are Immense Opportunities for Collaboration and Partnerships
  4. It’s Happening (So we need to be part of those conversations if philanthropy wants to stay relevant to the world we live in)

beyondSpeaking of immense opportunities for collaboration and cross-pollination, it’s in dribs and drabs but we are starting to see reports celebrating these types of efforts.  Two great recent examples are “Beyond Dialogue: Building Sustainable and Inclusive Business Models in Partnership with Social Entrepreneurs” by Acumen and the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at Oxford’s Saïd Business School, and “Social Innovation: A Guide to Achieving schwabCorporate and Societal Value” by the World Economic Forum and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship. It’s especially edifying to see that philanthropy figures prominently both in making the reports possible and in the many examples of cross-sector collaboration they highlight.

On my last point about the fact that these conversations are happening and we better be part of them if philanthropy wants to stay relevant, I note that the title of the topic that brings us together is “The Future of Philanthropy”. Would our conversation be different if the topic was “The Future”, and if would be, how worried should that make us? After all, the best way to secure a future is to be crucial to the future.

Bonus Example of the Power of Cross-Pollination

I recently attended an event called “Unstoppable Ideas with Jeremy Gutsche” (a brilliant thinker and native Calgarian!), hosted by the Hunter Centre for Entrepreneurship and Innovation.  Jeremy provided this wonderful story that exemplifies how great ideas – even one that at first blush may seem trivial – can impact a wide array of sectors:

Robert Lang’s lifelong love of origami began in first grade, when his teacher gave him an art origami art book in the hopes that it would keep him from distracting his fellow students.

It was a passion he could not let go; to the point where, at 40, he quit his successful career in fibre optic research to pursue origami full time.

Robert was intrigued not only by the art, but the science of origami – where people saw beauty, he saw beauty and patterns. As a result, and picking up on his professional background, he was able to develop a software program that calculated the folding pattern of almost any figure imaginable. The result revolutionized origami – whereas for centuries origami seemed to have peaked at 30 folds, through Robert’s techniques folds increased to 100.

Here’s where the real cross-pollination kicks in. As a result of those same techniques:

  • Robert helped NASA fold a telescope into a rocket ship;
  • He helped an automaker use a superior technique to pack air bags;
  • Bioengineers are using his origami approach to pack strands of DNA.

Robert sums up the power of cross-pollination perfectly:

“Almost all innovation happens by making connections between fields that other people don’t realize. Look for connections and try to understand the patterns. It’s all well and good to see a connection between two fields, but if you understand the underlying pattern, then you can more easily see similar types of connections at play in other fields of endeavour.”

This story is also set out in Jeremy’s new book, “Better and Faster: The Proven Path to Unstoppable Ideas”.

Jeremy knits up heart surgery, rocket science, origami and Robert Lang in his amazing keynote
Jeremy nits up heart surgery, rocket science, origami and Robert Lang in his amazing keynote
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