Renowned 20th-century community organizer Saul Alinsky told a parable about a group of villagers who, upon witnessing a succession of babies floating by in a fast-moving river, mobilize massive resources at great cost to save them. Although they quickly collectivize the rescue effort and create elaborate response mechanisms, they fail to keep up with the steady increase of waterborne infants. After castigating some rescuers for apparently abandoning the collaborative effort, they learn that the others aren’t ignoring the problem but instead are going upstream to stop the babies from being thrown into the river in the first place. Alinsky used the story to make the case for prioritizing resources toward underlying causes rather than just reacting to crises.
Another reading is that working together on an immediate challenge is the best way to create the conditions necessary to initiate systemic change. In other words, collaborations are not just a logical response to complex problems; collaborations are required to adequately reveal a given constellation of issues and how they relate to each other.
The obvious benefits to working collectively (scope, skills, shared responsibility) and the obvious challenges (coordination, conflict, shared responsibility) are only part of the picture. Just as important, the collaborative process creates an exchange of knowledge, connections, and social capital.
In the previous essay, Orit Kent and Allison Cook make the case that chavruta isn’t just a way to learn about a text but is also a way to build learning relationships. Their implicit maxim, “How we learn is what we learn,” also applies to social benefit work: How we go about creating social good is just as significant as the work itself.
Chavruta, partnership, is a technology for understanding a topic, and it is also a way to develop the skills and frameworks necessary for solving problems. Creative interrogation, resilient listening, and in-depth analysis all foster the kind of milieu most likely to effect systems-change. Working collaboratively helps us learn — to gain wisdom, to be in relationship, and to resolve (and tolerate) conflict.
No social issue is an island; each exists within an organizational landscape and a societal ecosystem. Addressing only one piece of a systemic problem rarely results in pervasive or lasting change. But working together we are more likely to instigate widespread change and also to break out of our nonprofit silos. Individually, organizations can fall into mission-related solipsism, which leads to tunnel-vision, competition among natural partners, and a general attitude of scarcity that diminishes our ability to consider novel solutions to vexing problems. Organizations working on the same issue are frequently pitted against each other — for funding, attention, or relevance. When several nonprofits compete for resources, the result is a zero-sum game: for one to win the others must lose. This is true even if the organizations have varied ways of approaching problems and complimentary or synergistic solutions. Collaboration — whether among funders or program operators — is a force multiplier for good.
A field effect emerges when organizations work together on common agendas. And connected organizations allow new and spontaneous collaborations to burst into being. In turn, innovations and micro-collaborations boost the energy of the entire system. This kind of “planned serendipity” is one of the more arcane yet truly powerful side-effects of chavruta partnerships. The collective response builds problem-solving infrastructure that buttresses both the current effort and future endeavors.
Being part of a collaborative shifts perspective and opens possibilities. A wider lens reveals untapped resources and unseen interdependencies. Whereas organizations are rewarded for their focus and activities, collectives are rewarded for their broad view and big-picture outcomes. Partnerships help narrow missions evolve into a shared vision.
A midrash on Alinsky’s parable: Some villagers rescue newborns, others work on the root cause, and, through their chavruta partnership, they become baby-saving experts, building a society where all babies are warm, dry, and safe from harm.
This story "Planned Serendipity" was written by Joshua Avedon.
Joshua Avedon is the co-founder and CEO of Jumpstart Labs (jumpstartlabs.org), a global research and design laboratory for creative philanthropy and social change.