The Art of Harnessing Collective Wisdom

“However beautiful the strategy, you should occasionally look at the results.” – Winston Churchill

This quote came to mind during the first session of the 2011 Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) conference as CEP Vice President Ellie Buteau presented the results of a recent CEO survey on foundation assessment. Ellie noted that CEOs reported tensions between the focus on assessment and the freedom to take risks, between data and intuition. Survey results indicated that those who collect more types of information from a variety of data sources have stronger confidence in the effectiveness of their strategy.

The CEP conference set a valuable table for foundations seeking to craft strategies that yield powerful results on some of society’s most vexing challenges. Based on conversations with others, I suspect I am not alone in feeling more confident in the beauty of our strategies than in our ability to consistently identify or recognize how best to assess our effectiveness.

In his plenary presentation, Michael Mauboussin asserted that intuition only works when the situation is linear and stable. I can’t speak for other foundations, but the contexts in which McKnight works are neither linear nor stable! Mauboussin, investment strategist and author of Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition, spoke of the power of aggregated data to provide important insights – whether through computer algorithms or from the wisdom of crowds – and gave examples of how the collective guess is better than the average guess of the individual.

At McKnight, a vital aspect of our strategy development and iteration is a deep understanding of the ecosystem in which we are operating. We look at how we can use our particular strengths to foster change across the civic, public, and private sectors. We use multiple means including the Grantee Perception Report® to assess how well we are doing and where we need to improve. In terms of results, we increasingly look to goals and progress measures that are owned by a broader set of people in the community we serve. As our work cuts across issues and sectors, it is critical to harness the power of collective wisdom.

Some of our most exciting work is in collaboratives where we analyze and make meaning together of data and evolving circumstances, and share accountability for results. One example is Re-AMP, a network of nonprofits and foundations working on climate change and energy policy. The Monitor Institute recently completed a case study of Re-AMP entitled Transformer: How to Build a Network to Change a System. Another example is Living Cities, a consortium of foundations and financial institutions that works to increase opportunities for low-income communities through innovative systems change work in the midst of, as one participant described it, “wicked complexity.”

When we next gather around the CEP table, I look forward to continuing the conversation about how can we harness the power of the collective – grantees, protagonists (too often viewed as simply “beneficiaries”), and others in the public, private, and civic sectors to craft better strategies and achieve deeper impact than any of us can do alone.

Kate Wolford is president of The McKnight Foundation

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