By Pat Nicklin, P3 Impact Award Judge & Executive Vice President at Reingold Inc.
I’m an impatient optimist. Working with Share Our Strength founders Billy and Debbie Shore, in 2008 I helped launch the No Kid Hungry campaign at the state level, helping governors enroll more kids and their families in federally-funded nutrition programs. Like all successful efforts to achieve real social impact, this campaign required more than good intentions. It took collaboration, a business-planning approach, and smart decision-making among hundreds of people.
The No Kid Hungry campaign was exhausting, time-consuming, and sometimes frustrating. But today, thanks to the Shores’ vision, leadership, and persistence, Share Our Strength and its partners have helped reduce childhood hunger across the nation. As Billy says, “A little goes a little way, but a lot does a lot.”
Fast forward a decade: I’m working with Reingold, an agency dedicated to achieving social impact across a wide range of challenges that are just as daunting as ending childhood hunger. We’re concerned with quality health care — overcoming a raging opioid crisis, lack of patient awareness about appropriate care, and barriers to access in both physical and mental health care. And we focus on economic opportunity — addressing gaps in workforce preparedness for today’s booming industries and underemployment in rural communities and among certain groups, such as veterans. These are problems we can solve, but not easily, and not without smart strategies.
Here at home, the wounds of serious social problems are festering. The United States continues to fall behind other developed countries in maternal death rates, particularly in rural southern communities where access to health care is increasingly limited, suicide rates are at an all-time high while mental health services are in short supply, and opioid addiction is killing 140 Americans a day.
Just when we thought we could pat ourselves on the back for success in the MDGs, we in the P3 community need to employ new models of collaborative problem-solving. While each issue requires a unique solution, there are core practices that we can apply to challenges across this spectrum. So, what exactly makes the difference between a wasted effort and one that achieves real impact?
Engaging experts and putting them in charge. While we’re really good in a crisis (think disaster response), we tend do a poor job at operationalizing long-term plans over about five to 10 years to address serious social issues that require significant investment. Sustaining a long-term solution requires inspiring the right people to join the movement and earning their buy-in. I spent my first year with No Kid Hungry traveling the country, talking to people on the front lines of childhood hunger and studying what was working and what had worked before. With these data, we developed a comprehensive network to connect 17 million children to federal nutritional programs. Building capacity isn’t enough — we need experts to manage and implement solutions, day after day.
Setting aside individual organizational objectives. How many of us have been members of coalitions, with endless meetings, that resulted in companies and nonprofits retreating to their corners to pick their best projects and partners? Public-private partnerships can’t be about self-interest. We need to use our best business-planning skills to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), without regard for nonprofits’ individual fundraising goals, governments’ political ideologies, or corporate business objectives. Establishing an effective collaboration for the No Kid Hungry campaign meant understanding the interests of each funder and partner, and then challenging those interests with the truth. While business interests help us sustain and scale our efforts, the plan won’t work unless each partner is committed to achieving the common goal — even when it means individual objectives have to take a back seat.
Closing the deal. While potential funders need to be engaged early on as architects of the solution, federal, state, and municipal governments play a central role. The No Kid Hungry coalition worked directly with the U.S. Department of Agriculture from the start to identify a strategy for relieving childhood hunger. The fact is, nonprofits and volunteers can’t solve problems on a national or global scale alone. Sitting down with government leaders, and not just advocating to policymakers, is critical to closing the deal.
So, when I ask myself what it will take to solve the world’s seemingly intractable serious social issues, I go back to Billy’s lesson from 10 years ago. It will take a lot: a lot of collaboration, a lot of smart strategy, a lot of operational planning that builds on the expertise of those who came before us, and a willingness to suspend our organizational goals for the greater good. Let’s not waste any time getting to work.