As with many practices of virtuous organizations, the principle of mobilization happens on two levels. First, as businesses are mission driven and strategically aligned, they are inherently mobilizing individuals into positive collective action. All of the virtuous organization’s resources, including human capital, are acting collectively to achieve the organization’s vision and mission. Secondly, the virtuous organization sees itself as an independent social actor that can help mobilize other organizations into collective action as engaged industries – like a band of businesses, moving together for positive social impact that would otherwise not happen. This is the virtuous organization’s power: an exemplar embracing their great responsibility.
Social problems are very complex. These serious issues require a capacity to deal with the nuances of common problems that shift in different contexts, the savvy to navigate serious resource constraints, the grit to carry out tenacious long-term tracking and impact measurement, and the network to scale best practices. Many have abandoned their efforts in frustration over a perceived lack of progress, even in the midst of undoubtedly important improvements. Working for systemic change, particularly when one is outside a system, can be discouraging if not crushing. Large-scale social change comes from collaboration and coordination.
Many of the needs listed above are core competencies of businesses – some of their greatest strengths.
Yet, as businesses compete – to bolster productivity, create broad accessibility, and drop prices – the importance of their own agenda may lead them to pursue individuality to preserve competitive edge. This sense of independence includes becoming too comfortable with social initiatives that have an isolated impact. These well-intentioned organizations may become oblivious to their own power to work with others for unparalleled value creation. Working together doesn’t happen often, because it is rarely attempted. In the frenetic envi-ronment of viewing competitors as organization to be acquired or destroyed, a firm may miss the exp-onential possibilities (within the market and for social good) inherent in mobilizing with other anal-ogous companies or industries for collective impact.
No single organization, however innovative or resource rich, can accomplish system change alone. There certainly is strength in numbers, but systems thinking also acknowledges that nothing gets better without all parts involved, contributing and improving within the same time as the whole.
Indeed, virtuous organizations embrace systems thinking, in general. They specifically see themselves as part of the ecosystems of industry, society, the natural world, and specific communities. They work to understand how each of the constituent parts interrelate, how the system works, and how the system fits into the context of other, larger systems.
For example, a manufacturing company headquartered in a large city may do the following: examine their connection to maintaining the current practices and products in their industry; self evaluate their role driving forward the overconsumption practices in the United States; measure the environmental impacts of their use of plastics on air and water pollution; and decide to address their apparent disconnect from the decreasing education and employment attainment in their city. Virtuous organizations always have a persistent work to do within the dynamic systems they exist in.
With awareness of their own power and responsibility within systems, and both the desire and position to lead, virtuous organizations begin to mobilize all parts for collective action.
Mars, Incorporated, the celebrated maker of M&M’s and many other chocolate treats, works with direct competitors and local governments to improve the lives of more than 500,000 impoverished cocoa farmers where Mars sources large portions of its cocoa. Better farming practices can triple plant yield, significantly increasing farmer incomes and improving the sustainability of Mars’s supply chain.
When companies face an industry challenge common to them all, in this case the need to address poverty among workers in their supply chain, the notion of pre-competitive consortiums can serve as a platform for aligning efforts to solve systemic problems. No chocolate company would gain a competitive advantage by this problem with farmers persisting, or by being alleviated. In fact, all stakeholders (customers, farmers, shareholders) would benefit by the shared problem being solved. By working together, these direct competitors were able to accomplish more for their industry on a larger scale and at a minimized cost. Mars led this effort and to reach farmers in and outside its supply chain. They also worked with the country’s government to provide agricultural training, the World Bank to finance roads, and donors to fund health and education system improvements in the farmer’s communities.
No doubt, this unified, collaborative approach takes leadership, commitment, and organization. There are plenty of examples, particularly in the social sector, of partnerships and collaboration.
However, very few of them ascend as effectively to the systems level of involvement as collective impact initiatives. This framework involves organizations coming together in a structured way, to achieve social change.
This also takes trust. Right from the start, those leading or invited to join collective impact initiatives come together to collectively define the problem and create a shared vision to solve it. Collective impact initiatives have a structured process, a shared agenda, a dedicated team as staff (often called “the backbone organization”), and continuous communication. Developing a common language, team, and measurement system, will build the trust necessary for organizations to do critical, impactful work.
As virtuous organizations mobilize stakeholder organizations to collaborate on addressing shared problems, they are using their power and position to uniquely deploy a coalition of signature strengths. These organizations do what they excel at, in ways that mutually reinforce (rather than duplicate) the differentiated actions of other organizations, for the benefit of all. Working this way, a virtuous organization create new standards, norms, and motivation for other firms to follow as they change their industry, the market, and even the world – for the better.