My Interview with Steve Schmida, Author of Partner with Purpose: Solving 21st-Century Business Problems Through Cross-Sector Collaboration
Steve Schmida may not have all of the answers to our world’s “wicked” problems, but he certainly has the foundation. As an international development expert leveraging partnerships to address our global challenges, ranging from climate change to food access, Schmida shares his approach to solving our most complex problems in his new book, Partner with Purpose: Solving 21st-Century Business Problems Through Cross-Sector Collaboration.
When I reached out to inquire about an interview for this blog, Steve couldn’t have been more willing to chat partnerships, collaboration, challenges engaging business leaders, and what it takes to combat these “wicked” problems he so aptly identified.
My interview with Steve is below. But first, an introduction:
Steve Schmida is Chief Innovation Officer and Co-Founder of Resonance, a global consulting company headquartered in Burlington, VT, leveraging market-based solutions to the world’s biggest challenges. Before founding Resonance, Schmida spent a number of years working in the former Soviet Union, helping advance entrepreneurship models, promoting democratic development and human rights. During that time, Schmida had many opportunities to learn the ins and outs of bringing public and private actors together to achieve, what we now call, shared value, or a way of engaging in collaboration for mutual benefit and comparative advantage. This model of collaboration helped form the genesis of Resonance, which now after fifteen years, has become a leader in building effective collaborations for scaled impact. Helping donor agencies like the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), global nonprofits or private sector organizations partner to accelerate impact, Resonance leverages effective collaboration approaches to make development work better for those who most benefit.
Below is a summary of our conversation.
JS: What are some of the biggest challenges businesses are facing now? Many are of course unique given Coronavirus, but if we were to also consider pre-COVID, and looking into the future, what issues arise? How does cross-sector collaboration help?
SS: If you consider what businesses’ core priorities were during the 20th century, they were focused solely on optimization. Programs around lean manufacturing, six sigma or other methods for minimizing outputs and inputs were top of mind. Moving into the 21st century, business challenges have become more complicated. “Wicked” problems that offer no linear causation or solution, like climate change, human trafficking in supply chains, improving sustainable sourcing in agriculture and so on require a completely different set of tools and approaches. Collaboration is important for tackling these problems, because there is really no way companies can solve them on their own. No one company or civil society actor can make climate change less of a reality without engaging others to create new incentive structures, cultures or methods for evaluating success. Collaboration is the new norm.
JS: Do companies need prodding or encouragement to think this way, or are they moving into this new evolution on their own?
SS: For those companies that see this move as being critical, they are making decisions accordingly. For others, there are a number of forces pushing companies in this direction. These include:
JS: What was it that prompted you to write this book? Which moments over your extensive career working with businesses in collaboration contexts made you think that writing a book was necessary to get this message out?
SS: There’s a lot of great material out there around partnerships produced by many wonderful organizations. Almost all of the information, however, has been written from the perspective of the public sector, or is focused exclusively on civil society. Very little has been written from the business context that allows the sector to act. I’ve worked directly on fifty or more partnerships (which includes building, managing, evaluating, and implementing collaborations). For business professionals, this space is tricky to navigate. I wanted to put something forward for a business professional that provides value and guides them into cross-sector collaboration in a way that’s engaging and readable. Also I wanted it to be less academic. The book is a “how to guide,” but it does not come with exercises. It does, however, include narratives that aim to illustrate a point, by highlighting how peers have engaged around a sustainability agenda. The book is meant to give different perspectives for businesses to use collaboration as a commercially viable tool.
JS: What is an ideal example of cross-sector collaboration through your experience? Something that’s worked well?
SS: There’s a good example that I include in the book, of a Resonance project working with USAID in Ghana. We were working with fisherfolk who found it risky to fish in the open ocean. We identified that insurance would help ameliorate the risk for fisherfolk’s families, so we brought in insurance and financial companies to deploy mobile micro insurance products geared towards these communities. Both the companies and USAID wanted to scale the initial project, so with the help of the Ghanaian government, we expanded what we thought would only be 300 participants into a 3,000 participant program. The companies were thrilled, because their product showed value, and they were able to learn a new market segment. The fisherfolk were relieved, and the government was happy to see such a viable business take off in this local context. USAID also saw value, given the extension of this informal sector into a new geography. The program is scaling and will serve 200,000 paying customers just this year. The insurance and financial companies are extending their services beyond fisherfolk into other sectors. We were thrilled to see a development problem turn into a business opportunity by finding the right collaboration.
JS: What are some of the biggest challenges you have faced in engaging in cross-sector collaboration?
SS: Effective collaboration around sustainability needs to solve a business problem, as well as a social or environmental problem. There must be alignment internally from both the business and corporate social responsibility sides for collaboration to work. At the same time, companies are facing supply side constraints. They are starting to see a pinch in their standard way of operating. In agriculture, for example, climate impacts yield, so when demand goes up, yields are doubly impacted. The internal teams focused on both of these issues need to agree with how to address this challenge. This internal misalignment is not unique to companies, but companies need to agree that there’s value in partnership. Multiple company departments have to be involved in making decisions. Incentives must align. Companies have different cultures and ways of handling these decisions. Internal alignment, and bringing stakeholders along on the journey is something that’s not often talked about, but where there’s a lot of work to still take on.
JS: In the book you share valuable tools for businesses ready to partner, including ways to overcome differences in approaches or methods for measuring impact. What is one of the most important elements of the process you include?
SS: Measurement. At Resonance we have a partnership results chain process that we use. It looks very similar to a logical framework analysis yet incorporates partner goals and motivations. We use it to help companies manage their partnership engagements a bit easier. We’ve also used it as a facilitation tool. The tool allows partners to understand the implicit and explicit outcomes of the partnership. We adapt it to many contexts and I share about it in the book.
JS: What is the one thing you wish you could tell all business leaders before they embark on a partnership journey?
SS: To get clear and crisp on the problem to be solved and determine whether it lends itself to partnership or not. In the book I talk about the simple, complicated and wicked problems framework. First things first, companies must understand what type of problem they are trying to solve. If it’s a simple problem, maybe they don’t need to involve outside actors to solve it. If it’s a complicated or wicked problem, then a business may need to ask itself “who else cares,” “who else has equities in this problem,” or if it’s unique to the company, in which case it makes sense to address the problem on its own. If there are equities elsewhere, the business will need to engage others in collaboration. This becomes the key point of departure in thinking about a partnership.
JS: What do you hope your readers will gain by reading your book?
SS: I hope they walk away excited that there’s an approach for solving problems, or at least trying to tackle them. Collaboration across sectors is not as easy as it sounds. Many of our clients come to Resonance after they’ve had a failed experience with partnership. Certain elements are complicated, especially internally. Yet they can be solved. Effective partnership requires intentionality. I hope business leaders approach partnership with intention and be deliberate after reading this book.
JS: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
SS: Partnerships are an incredible tool but they are not a panacea. The purpose of my book is to help companies see that partnership is a tool they can use, and equip people with the skills to determine whether it’s the right tool. Resonance’s commitment is to operate at the nexus of civil society, the public and private sectors, and to help focus on the important problems to solve.
It was such a joy to talk with Steve about his work and his book. His dedication to partnership building, and effective collaboration to address our wicked problems is inspiring and contagious. I hope you’ll join me in enjoying his book when it comes out June 2nd. Pre-sales are available here.
Joanne Sonenshine is Founder of Connective Impact, an advisory firm developing impactful partnership, funding and collaboration strategies for international, mission-driven, socially-minded and environmentally conscious organizations
Imagine this scenario: you have one hundred dollars to spend at your favorite store. You can buy anything you like, as long as the total doesn't exceed one hundred dollars. In another scenario, you are mandated to buy specific items under the hundred dollar budget at your favorite store, plus you must furnish your receipt to confirm you followed the rules. In both scenarios you receive the hundred dollars, but the items you buy may be very different. On one hand you are restricted to certain formalities. On the other hand you have full freedom to be creative and exploratory with your purchasing decisions.
Now imagine you are a cause-based organization, looking for ways to advance your mission, amplify your social impact, or accelerate your sustainability program. Your search for funding covers the public sector (i.e. governments), corporate donors, philanthropies and impact investors. As is usually the case, these donors have pre-determined programmatic goals, and/or geographical priorities, that they must fund. So you can apply for funding as long as your program fits within the donor's criteria. Each of these programs comes with reporting requirements, timelines, due dates and delivery expectations.
In another scenario, where a donor organization provides unrestricted funding (funding to help cause-based organizations, nonprofits or mission-oriented companies fill in gaps in programming, address needs of constituents, or invest in impact programs, without the added criteria of programmatic deliverables, geographic specifics, timelines in some instances or specific goals), it’s akin to being given a one hundred dollar bill at your favorite store without the requirements of purchasing specific items and furnishing a receipt. With unrestricted funding, your organization can use funds however you see fit, but with the intent to deliver on your cause, mission or impact program using creative methods, innovative approaches and trying different models.
Unrestricted funding is truly the panacea of all funding.
Let me give you an example as to why this is the case. When I was a nonprofit program director before launching Connective Impact, I managed several programs that had similar deliverables, but in three different geographies. Our primary donor funded our program on a three-year timeline, and it was my job to ensure that all of the objectives were met, our program teams in each geography were tracking their deliverables, budgets were in order, and our work was following the donor’s output expectations to a tee. It was challenging to deliver under our tight timeline, especially as issues beyond our control took time to manage, and our budget never budged when we had unexpected shifts in community needs due to a weather disaster in one of the geographies.
To fill in programmatic gaps, we had to seek unrestricted funding from a different donor, essentially to ensure we were delivering on our primary donor’s requirements. Unrestricted funding gave us a bit more wiggle room in terms of how we carried out the program, how we used our budgets to support the stakeholders involved and the timeline under which we were operating. The unrestricted funding became our stop-gap measure. Had our original donor allowed our funding to be unrestricted, we would have had a much easier time delivering on our programmatic goals, because we wouldn’t have been as tied to timelines and specificities. We may have had more flexibility to deliver, and thus wouldn’t have needed to find additional funding to complete the program.
Unrestricted funding allows for a much more goal-oriented and community based method of program delivery, without so much effort tied to specifics that get cause-oriented organizations tripped up.
It’s something that should be considered by all donors as a critical element to philanthropy.
So why is unrestricted funding so critical, especially now, during this global pandemic?
First of all, timelines have become completely unrealistic, given the uncertainty of what lies before us. We really have no idea how long this pandemic will last, what it means for our work, our institutions and our communities. Given the millions of people under quarantine, it's impossible to deliver on programmatic priorities that require in person engagement, training, or other activities that are measured in groups. In some situations a virtual substitute is possible, but the timelines would still be out of sync. Donors must shift to unrestricted funding to account for timeline discrepancies at a minimum.
Second, programmatic priorities are shifting — quickly. It goes without saying that when an entire planet of people is struggling to maintain health and economic wellbeing, priorities will change. Donors must be flexible with programs that now have very different deliverables and expectations than before this crisis.
Finally, unrestricted funding allows nonprofits, mission-driven companies and other social cause programs to keep people employed, programs running, and the economic engine of growth intact. In some cases programs are already underfunded outside of a pandemic. Now, more than ever, social causes need opportunities to propel their missions and reach those who have the greatest needs. This is true whether the entity is public or private. Unrestricted funding simply gives organizations the wiggle room to test new ideas, keep the lights on or ensure programs are still running in this difficult and challenging time.
There have been positive developments in the funding community around this issue as of late. Some of the largest philanthropies in the United States have indicated that during the course of COVID-19, they will switch all of their grantees toward an unrestricted model, which means fewer reporting requirements, more flexible timelines, and broader programmatic parameters.
While having fewer restrictions will be so critical during the current pandemic, my hope is the move towards more unrestricted funding will stay here for good. Heading into the next ten years, as we do our best to advance the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), businesses, nonprofits, governments and entrepreneurs alike will need more flexibility to try new programs, test new ideas and be innovative. Flexible and unrestricted funding, with fewer reporting restrictions, will allow for that on a much broader scale.
Want to track funding trends and engage with donors in a more collaborative way? Join our Funding + Partnerships Online Community and take your fundraising to the next level.
By: Stefanie Kruglik, Senior Director of Impact + Strategy
The Coronavirus has arrived in the United States, and even if we do our best to avoid getting infected, our daily lives and work will be (and already are) impacted.
However, not all is lost!
Partnerships and collaboration can still thrive without face-to-face interaction. Our online partnership community is a testament to that! Think of the carbon savings, too, when virtual meetings replace ones you must travel thousands of miles to attend! With some strategy and a few little tweaks to how you work, your partnerships can continue to thrive even during this uncertain time.
What can you do In the wake of Coronavirus to ensure your business keeps its partnership dialogues moving despite limited in-person time?
Don’t have a partnership strategy yet? Now is a great time to build one. Take a look at our free resources online and get in touch.
By: Joanne Sonenshine, Founder + CEO
According to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), resilience is all of those things, and likely more. Resilience is about systems change, and multi-sector engagement on the ground, especially in communities where conflict, development deceleration and economic loss is most prevalent.
In a panel discussion hosted by the Society for International Development (SID) here in Washington, and populated with leaders from USAID, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Mercy Corps, and Opportunity International, USAID shared an update on its Bureau creation, whereby the existing Bureau for Food Security (BFS) will merge with the water teams currently housed within the Bureau for Economic Growth, Energy and Environment (EEE), and Center for Nutrition, to become the new Bureau for Resilience and Food Security.
The proposed Bureau aims to improve the way the agency helps communities and countries "enhance their well-being, improve water security and reduce hunger, poverty and malnutrition." But what does that really mean? For the new Center, focusing on resiliency doesn't mean an entirely new approach to distribution of U.S. Government aid. It simply means that USAID can better target countries and communities most in need of humanitarian assistance, while eventually saving on U.S. Government costs, by building systems and capacity that allow for the countries to take on their own development in the future.
The three sources of programmatic activity aim to be:
The U.S. Government is right to focus on how its dollars are utilized in countries like Ethiopia, for example, where more than $5 billion has gone to address challenges around drought, food insecurity, and income inequality over the last decade. While Ethiopia has made great gains in its development trajectory, when new challenges come into play (for example the current devastation brought on by locusts or floods, etc.) the country should ideally be able to help itself bounce back over time. The Bureau's aim is to help build local infrastructure, market systems, technical capacity and local collaborations to help countries and communities mitigate, and ultimately adapt, to these crises, without the continuous need of the U.S. Government.
During the panel discussion, a panelist raised this simple, yet provocative question: "We are we still focused on resilience after all of these years?" The answer: We have no choice until we get better at it. USAID will be taking lessons from the successful Feed the Future program, and continue promoting the long term benefit of adoption of farming best practices, climate smart agriculture, better use of soil, income diversification and gender equity to propel resilience measures in places where it invests.
There was much talk about collaboration, and how hard it can be, especially when there are so many different systems, terminologies and approaches used in field contexts. I asked how the U.S. Government is considering its role in managing irresponsible governments and crumbling infrastructure, like bridges and roads, given how much it touts its interest in working with the private sector, and the need for these basics to be in place for effective market-based systems to thrive. Thriving market-based systems lend themselves to longer term development, and resilience, all else being equal. The private sector grows impatient with USAID at times when the urgent need is better governance to promote market-based systems. From the response I got, it sounds like USAID recognizes its importance in facilitating strong government dialogue, and helping governments commit to long term market stabilization, thus encouraging private sector engagement. As an aside, this is also the role the Millennium Challenge Corporation is trying to play alongside USAID.
I was encouraged by the repeated mentions of multi-sector approaches, since to address resiliency in many communities (particularly those in agricultural centers), the community must be at the center of investment, and one sector alone, or commodity, or investor type, or government even, can not solve all challenges without effective collaboration, built from the community up.
In summary, it remains to be seen how effective the new Bureau for Resilience and Food Security will be in truly moving the needle on development challenges in places of highest need, conflict and humanitarian crises. Measuring results around resiliency has gotten easier, but is still incredibly difficult AND takes a lot of time.
In the meantime, our role here at Connective Impact will be to bring together actors that have a vested interest in seeing economic improvements over time, and are patient for results, but believe deeply in the power of markets and private sector-led collaboration to make change.
By: Stefanie Kruglik, Sr. Director Impact + Strategy
The "S" represents human rights, and the farmer and other supplier community elements with whom we work to acheive sustainability. It is also the hardest piece of ESG to track. In recent weeks, a number of brands have made large commitments pertaining to the “E” within ESG, including goals for reducing plastic use, reducing or zeroing out deforestation, and sourcing more sustainable materials. While these are important and groundbreaking commitments, people and communities must be included in order to ensure success.
For instance, how can we address deforestation without addressing poverty and the need for living income for farmers?
People and planet cannot be separated when we set ESG goals.
Many tools exist to provide brands insight into their supply chains. But if they are not paired with oversight and holistic solutions aimed at the people in their supply chains, the tools only allow brands to see risks and problems—without the ability to fix them. This often leads to “cut and run” sourcing.
We must realize that transparency is not enough. We must go beyond risk identification and avoidance, and begin to address the human rights of people and communities within supply chains in “risky” areas.
How can we do this?
Reach out if you want to discuss these calls to action, and specific recommendations around how to include the "S" in your ESG goals.