A Conversation with Kenneth H. Zimmerman, Director of U.S. Programs at the Open Society Foundations

Zimmerman will offer a luncheon keynote address – Creating a Just Society through Movement Building – at the Exchange’s Fifth Anniversary Conference on Scaling Impactin June. In this preview, he talks with Cynthia Massarsky about what philanthropy can do to help more people in need, the key elements for successful collaboration, and the value of networks as a resource to help finance scale.

You have said that “philanthropy offers a remarkable vehicle to combine vision and resources to further our country’s core principles of fairness and opportunity.” With so many marginalized and vulnerable people – particularly in low-income communities – what can and should philanthropy do differently to help more people in need?

We in philanthropy occupy a remarkably privileged position from which to address the distortions that prevent everyone from having full access to economic, social, and political opportunities.  As we think about how to help more people in need, one critical thing we can do is to support advocacy at scale.  This can cover a lot of ground, ranging from investing in groups that identify and push for needed policy shifts to supporting agents of social change.  Some of this is about fighting back when decisions are made that undermine the democratic values we aspire to. Take, for example, the response to the recent Supreme Court decision that fundamentally diminished the reach and import of the Voting Rights Act.  In conjunction with a number of other funders, we at OSF have developed a Response Fund that allows lawyers, community organizers, social service providers, those with expertise in strategic communications, and policy experts at the federal and local levels –to develop a coordinated strategy to prevent voter suppression. Whether by shifting the rules of the game or ensuring that the best lessons from program innovation are incorporated into public policy, advocacy can have such a huge social impact for those we care most about. I would encourage more philanthropies to support advocacy.

Despite all the important work accomplished by nonprofits, scaling impact remains an elusive goal. The inability to achieve scale makes it all but impossible to address our most difficult social problems.  And yet, an increasing number of effective interventions are seeking to scale their impact in new ways, and many have developed strategies for field level change. Given the myriad of solutions to our most intractable social problems, what should keep in mind as we seek to reach scale on responses to core social issues?

Obviously, the issue of how to scale effective programs is a critical one, and there is much good thinking about how to develop intermediaries to broaden good practice, aggregate capital to support effective interventions, or use data and benchmarks to help strengthen practice throughout a sector.  With all that said, though, I think we need to keep in mind that seldom can good programs reach scale and address core social issues without broad public support and understanding. We need to be skilled at creating and maintaining that support, especially for those programs intended to strengthen–and at times to change–the narrative about why these investments are important.

A good example: The stepped-up efforts to address the disparities that face boys and young men of color, especially African-Americans.  In work that began before I arrived at OSF, (which allows me to talk about it somewhat immodestly), OSF established the Campaign for Black Male Achievement, and engaged with other foundations who similarly developed programs focused on this population, such as the Knight Foundation’s BMe, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Forward Promise, or the California Endowment’s Sons & Brothers. The challenge is enormous, when you consider the statistics, which show how African-American boys and young men lag behind in high school graduation rates but are dramatically overrepresented in our prisons and jails. CBMA and its philanthropic partners made a concerted effort to hold up promising practices, identify leaders in the field, create a broad-based set of committed actors, and reframe how African-American boys and men are seen. The focus was not just to develop an array of programs needed to address the disparities, but to establish a set of leaders and institutions committed to the issue and create the political and policy space to allow real change to take place. With President Obama’s announcement of the My Brother Keeper’s initiative in February, significant strides have been made in this regard. That doesn’t mean we’re anywhere close to scaling up to the level that’s needed. But the power of the bully pulpit, coupled with the potential to integrate leading practice into federal policy and program, makes this a very meaningful moment.

The Social Impact Exchange and Scaling Marketplace are premised on the belief that collaboration among funders is crucial to making progress in solving our most difficult social problems. Would you say what you see as the key elements for successful collaboration, and share an example of how that’s played out in your work?

Collaboration is indeed one key to scaling. But let’s be honest, it’s tricky. I’ve heard collaboration jokingly described as an unnatural act between unconsenting adults.  Our goal in philanthropy has to be to make sure we overcome the challenges to ensure that this adage does not apply to us.

I’m still a relative newcomer to philanthropy. But I think some of the challenges are straightforward. Foundations are largely autonomous entities with responsibilities to our boards, which makes the kind of deep collaboration based on putting aside specific agendas or perspectives challenging. But some of the advantages we bring to addressing social issues–a commitment to take risks, to support innovation, to engage in opportunistic thinking—should be a basis for more sustained partnership, even if different entities approach those activities from different perspectives. The value is not only the broadened resource base that should emerge, but a deeper sense of the strengths and weaknesses of specific approaches that might not be apparent without such a partnership.

Both the potential and challenge of collaboration are reflected in a program I was involved with in Newark, New Jersey. The state Supreme Court had ordered a massive ($8.6 billion) school construction program slated to take place primarily in urban areas. In order to make this a real employment opportunity for those in Newark and other low-income areas, we had to engage a disparate set of actors: the public schools, the building trade unions, community activists, state and local government. To say that there was distrust and skepticism would be an understatement. Over the course of two years, we created a pre-apprenticeship program for recent urban high school grads that not only helped provide training, but enabled them to become full-fledged members of the unions that governed public building projects, such as the schools. To make this happen, we had to take on some of the political risk, ensure that information was shared with the respective players, and keep a constant focus on the goal of enabling  minority youth to access  the trades. While the work was challenging, the pay-off included the benefits for the more than 400 minority youth who entered the building trades, as well as a public funding stream that facilitated long-term sustainability of the effort.

You have talked about how actions regarding a particular subject in a particular geographic location can have a profound effect on others. How does this relate to the value of networks as a vehicle to support a given cause or movement?

There’s a lot of attention given to place-based philanthropy.  At OSF, we have had a field office in Baltimore for over 15 years now, and have recently initiated new efforts in three others places: San Diego, Buffalo and Puerto Rico.  We believe that a multi-issue, multi-tool approach that recognizes the importance of local networks can be critical in bringing about desired social change.

There are a lot of really important state and local foundations. The interesting question for a national organization is how best to intersect with those, and take advantage of the networks of local players in ways that are productive while avoiding overlap and inconsistencies. My takeaway, from an OSF perspective, is that place matters. It may be a cliché, but it’s true: what works in one place won’t necessarily work everywhere else. And how you apply the lessons from one locale to another is part of the art of what we are trying to do.

How can we use networks as a resource to help finance scaling efforts?

Networks are indispensable in the development of a growth capital marketplace.  They obviously can provide long-term support for the efforts of nonprofits seeking to scale up. But they also can strengthen assessment, idea generation, access to new opportunities, and, ultimately, the intellectual capital for problem-solving. As we use these networks, we need to keep in mind that our resources do affect the relationships we have with grantees and others. That comes with the territory, of course. Certainly, one of the privileges of our position is our convening power: the ability to connect disparate, siloed actors in ways that go far beyond financial support. And there is a special value when we can steer a strong project or good idea that we cannot fund to the right resources elsewhere.