The Power of Issue-centred Collaboration - a message from the Executive Director

Put the issue in the centre.

A year and a half ago, former Habitat for Humanity and Pathways to Education CEO David Hughes addressed The Natural Step Canada’s board and staff. Amidst all the wise counsel he shared about scaling up the impact of “for-impact” organizations like ours, that simple message - put the issue in the middle - was the one that resonated most strongly.

It’s no secret in the sustainability/social innovation/environmental/social justice communities that the problems posed by global sustainability challenges are too great and too complex to be addressed by any individual organization. This was powerfully stated in the Breakthrough Manifesto 1.0 of Volans’ Breakthrough; Business Leaders, Market Revolutions report:

The time is almost past for going it alone. The nature and scale of the challenges now dictate that we work together. If you want to go fast, as the old proverb puts it, go alone—but if you want to go far, go in company.”

This isn’t news anymore. Over the last year, pronouncements on the necessity of collaboration have proliferated to the point where ‘Collaboration’ itself risks becoming a buzz word, repeated again and again, with little thought put into its true meaning.

So what does it mean to collaborate effectively and meaningfully? And what does it look like?

I believe that at least a part of this answer can be found David Hughes’ insight, re-iterated to a much broader audience at the Accelerate Conference in June, about putting the issue (rather than an organization) at the centre of any collaborative effort.

While this idea that collaboration should be focused on the issue may seem obvious, it is easier said than done. Tim Draimin’s exceptional June 27th SiG article Collaborating Effectively: forming impact-driven partnerships explores this theme in detail, drawing on a number of examples from change leaders that he met at Accelerate.

At The Natural Step Canada we have been making a conscious effort over the past year to pursue collaborative efforts that truly put the issue in the centre and have begun to see results reinforcing our early sense of just how powerful this approach can be. 

Early movement and support for the Gold-standard Benchmark for Sustainable Business is just such an example. By putting the need for a unifying, science-based benchmark for sustainability ratings at the centre of the effort, the project has attracted collaboration from a number of leading organizations eager to contribute capacity and expertise, including B Lab, the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing, Corporate Knights, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, Sustainability Advantage, the Strongly Sustainable Business Model Group, and Green Living Enterprises. The circle of organizations and individuals looking to play a role in this initiative looks set to expand further based on a recent workshop in Toronto. Be sure to read Senior Associate Pong Leung’s article summing up progress to date on the Gold-standard Benchmark for Sustainable Business.

Another great example is the success of the IMPACT! Sustainability Champions Training which engages students to identify how they want to begin to effect change as sustainability leaders, helps them to develop their skills, and supports their success. Originally a partnership between two organizations, The Co-operators and The Natural Step, the program has now become a multi-partner collaborative initiative. By putting the needs and benefit of the students at the centre of the effort, the IMPACT! Champions program has forged creative collaborative partnerships with organizations and individuals across Canada. Through these partnerships, IMPACT! has been able to expand its reach and impact (forgive the pun) as well as the activities and support it offers participants.

The more we change our thinking and approach from promoting TNS Canada and its amazing programs and services, to providing leadership and enabling collaboration on issues where TNS Canada is privileged to be able to contribute, the more convinced I am that we are on the right track.

Take care, and remember: If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go in company.

Want to engage further in the conversation about sustainability-driven collaboration? The Natural Step Canada is excited to host the 2nd annual Accelerate: Collaborating for Sustainability Conference on June 5-6, 2014, in Toronto. Join us to deepen learning about collaboration from experts and practitioners, experience collaboration by creating connections with other change agents, and seed new collaborative initiatives. Learn more and register today!