Do you know what’s happening outside your silo?

It wouldn’t be surprising if, for many, the answer is “not really.” Organizations, and I think nonprofits particularly, are implicitly encouraged to operate within their own silos – to focus on their own mission, connecting with others only when necessary to achieve their own goals.

That’s how things have been structured to work. Most funders follow a model of supporting individual agencies, not collaborative efforts. Organizations therefore have to compete against each other for funding and resources. This forces them to concentrate on their individual efforts and the distinctions between themselves and other agencies, rather than on what they have in common and their shared interests.

Most leaders are also stretched so thin – juggling multiple roles, struggling to secure funding to keep their doors open, dealing with whatever crisis that day may bring – they don’t have the luxury of time to contemplate life outside their silo. How can they begin to imagine what they could accomplish if they were part of a multi-sector collaborative, much less take action?

Functioning within silos limits us to programmatic solutions; it’s what we can accomplish on our own. This is part of what John Kania and Mark Kramer refer to as “isolated impact” in their article, Collective Impact, in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2011.

Programmatic solutions, no matter how well they are implemented, are not likely to achieve community-wide impact on the kinds of complex issues facing our communities today. Issues like poverty, child well-being, disparities in health outcomes, the environment, or creating age-friendly communities cry out for multi-sector collaboration. It’s the only way we’re going to make real progress.

For collaboration to be possible, a shift needs to happen from thinking and acting in silos to looking at the entire system within which an agency is a part.

What happens outside our silo?

Every organization is part of a system. By that I mean the group of interrelated agencies and elements (such as policies and funding) that are meant to address a social problem. And let’s face it, our systems aren’t working so well! Programs and services aren’t effectively coordinated. There are often gaps in services, with clients falling through the cracks. Policies often impede, rather than support, improvements.

When we start to look at problems from a systems level, we get a new perspective. We see not just the pieces and players, but how they are interconnected. And in those interconnections, we start to see possibilities that just aren’t there at the programmatic level.

Suddenly, the potential scope of our goals changes. We can begin to think beyond the programmatic solutions of individual agencies to community-wide solutions and impact.

Our thinking can go from how to help an individual or family “beat the odds” to “changing the odds” for all families. From helping people who are living in poverty, to moving people out of poverty.

Taking action at the systems level won’t be possible without strong relationships among the various organizations in the system, so this shift is closely related to the change from a culture of competition to one of trust that I wrote about in my last post. There’s one more culture change, moving from a linear to an adaptive approach, needed for collaboration. I’ll address that in my next post.