Howling at the Moonback

By Robin Mockenhaupt, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Last month Robin Mockenhaupt, Chief of Staff at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, attended the Social Impact Exchange conference. Here she shares her perspective on the value of strategic collaborations in scaling for social impact.

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons features a group of wolves on a mountaintop howling at the moon. One of them says, “Do you think we’re having an impact?” That’s what it often feels like in philanthropy; we’re all up there howling at the moon.

For many years the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has been thinking about how we can identify those organizations that are ready to scale and take them to a place where they can have the social impact we envision they could have. In fact, that is a core strategy of our Vulnerable Populations portfolio. In addition, last year we created a specific fund — the Impact Capital Fund — to do more high impact investing, such as program related investments (PRIs), mission related investing, low interest loans, and engaging in strategic collaborations with other funders with a common vision.

We and many other funders realized early on that with the problems that we have to solve in this world, none of us is able to do it alone. In fact, collectively and collaboratively it’s often a drop in the bucket what foundations — and funders in general — have to give. But, the only way that we can supercharge the kind of impact we want is if we have these kinds of collaborations. For example, through our Childhood Obesity portfolio, we invested $500 million — a lot of money for us, a lot of money for any foundation. But what if we had been able to bring together other funders and said, “Instead of $500 million, we’re going to put in $50 billion,” what kind of impact could we have had on childhood obesity rates? We need to break down our internal and structural barriers to find each other and rally around common goals.

Working together also means sharing access to each other’s networks. We work in seven funding areas — many funders work within more than one area. And knowing within our organizations what all the connections are — what the social network map looks like — is a priority of ours. But if we did that across funders, we’d — again — be able to have an even greater impact.

On the funder side, it’s like a 12 step program; collectively the first step is to realize this is an approach we need to take. It will then require clarity of vision and the time and the patience to make it work. And those things are in short supply. Taking the time to develop relationships with partners and being clear about a common vision and the metrics you are going to use to determine success is not easy.

I’ve talked about what foundations are doing to increase our ability to have an impact, but nonprofits can do something as well. More organizations need to be able to think about, develop the capacity for, and communicate how they can scale for impact. Being at the place where they can talk about goals and their business plan for achieving those goals is not common; many nonprofits cannot do that. They struggle just to meet annual budgets and changing streams of funding. 

I think the Social Impact Exchange conference is great; now comes the hard part. We need to make this exchange actionable if we’re going to have the impact we seek. We need to take the time to do it right, which requires having patience and being clear about goals. It sounds obvious, but it’s difficult within an organization and across organizations. I’ve been in strategic collaborations that took two and a half years to get to a point of clarity. How many people’s lives could we have changed during that time?