Cumulative Impact Reflects the Concepts of Slow

564774335_b179421b6b_oIn 2009, Vermont passed forward-looking legislation aimed at the twin goals of  improving access to healthy, local food and supporting the State’s food and farm sectors. This is no easy task due to over-lapping structures, complicated and un-integrated food systems, and major gaps in areas such as regional hubs and distribution centers.

I’ve recently had the good fortune to be working with the Vermont Community Foundation (VCF) on its new Food and Farm Initiative.  In 2012, VCF took the bold move of creating a five-year initiative and allocating a significant portion of its discretionary funds to boost these efforts. It made the strategic decision to focus much of its first two years of funding on Vermont’s Farm to School (F2S) efforts.  Slow Communities was hired to convene the grantees and to also help develop an evaluation Colllective_Impact_redLframework to document the impact of VCF’s funding and leadership. Through this work, I’ve witnessed another early and encouraging example of the cumulative impact approach espoused by John Kania and Mark Kramer in their 2011 and 2013 articles in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

The Cumulative Impact articles call for change and suggest solutions at both the non-profit and philanthropic levels. For non-profits they suggest a more collective approach that breaks down silos, facilitates collaboration, enables more reliable evaluation and actually boosts long-term impact and funding.  It’s not exactly rocket science but requires elusive trust building and risk taking amongst the non-profits, an authentic willingness to share and work together, and a background leadership structure. I am witnessing this very example amongst the non-profits funded by VCF (and others). Through a series of 6 meetings over the course of 8 months, these groups and others in the F2S arena have met and wrestled with collective and individual issues. They have predicated their conversations on honesty, inclusion, diversity within common objectives, a commitment to solving the issues even if it places their organization at risk, and of course, good local food. They’ve all been equals in the conversations and yet have also allowed a leadership organization provide the structure to ensure progress.

Out of these conversations I see VCF’s five organizations now coming together to develop partnership projects and seek funding together rather than each one fighting for the money, project and fame. I see trainings that bring in the expertise of multiple organizations building skills across disciplines. I see fewer turLocal Food for Healthy Communities_Coverf wars and far more common language and comprehensive thinking. Innovative solutions needed in this rapidly evolving arena are emerging. Particularly noteworthy, these non-profits are sharing previously highly treasured and guarded fundraising information to ensure coordinated and more powerful asks of donors. While some of these developments are quite recent, VCF has done a great job capturing a lot of the richness (and challenges) in this work in their Local Food for Healthy Communities publication.

I also view the Kania and Kramer’s Cumulative Impact articles as a call to the philanthropic world to change its expectations and practices. Under the cumulative impact approach, foundations and donors must acknowledge they often ask the right questions but rarely have the answers. Pressure to produce short term results must give way to a patient process that allows for experimentation and even failure—this is how the answers are best developed. Foundations must take a longer view on how and when impact can occur (particularly in those areas where social change is needed) and they should band together to provide a more consistent and open environment within which non-profits operate. Just like the non-profits I’ve described above and true to Slow Communities’ philosophy, philanthropy must be inclusive, open to diversity of opinions, patient and transparent if they want to nurture innovation and achieve long lasting change.

In its initiative, I see VCF embracing the cumulative impact approach. This means not only does it face the challenge of helping to solve the challenges in the food security and agricultural viability sectors, but also changing the way non-profits and philanthropy do business. We’ve all seen the limitations of short-term and un-coordinated work. Now is the time to pursue the promising and proactive model of cumulative impact funding and work. VCF and its Food and Farm grantees are up for the challenge and it’s inspiring.  Are you involved in a cumulative impact project or do you know of other similar efforts? If so, please share them. Good luck with the difficult and rewarding journey!

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  1. Bruce Seifer, 4 years ago Reply

    Bill you make a great point about creating a system that brings foundations together with the nonprofit world in order to help students and the school systems. Another important aspect to consider in the food system is working with the private sector to help develop a green supply chain that’s tied to the needs in the local region. For example, Vt Butter and Cheese is working with foundations and Vermont Technical College to create a farm that will have 1000 goats which will supply milk to Vermont Butter and Cheese. They need many more herds of goats in Vermont in order to supply Vermont Butter and Cheese for their existing needs. This is wonderful news for the farm industry in Vermont and students considering farming as an occupation. Partners need to continue to work together in order to help Vermont Butter and Cheese get the local supply they need by helping the farms get established, the farmers get the technical and financial support they need, and students get hands on training and experience.

    Another example is City Market, which is located in downtown Burlington. This area has the highest concentration of poverty in Vt. City Market is a consumer-own food cooperative with over 9000 members that utilize over 500 Vermont suppliers. City Market has actively worked to build the Vt supply chain in order to increase production so they can sell more Vermont products.

    In order to develop a supermarket the city of Burlington created a process that brought together many stakeholders. The partners included the Preservation Trust of Vermont, City Market, city of Burlington, US Department of Agriculture Rural Development, the members of City Market, US HUD, UVM Center for Rural Studies, and the community at-large. The city set a standard that over 1000 Vermont products would be carried in the downtown supermarket and that basic goods would be competitively priced.

    City Market has worked with their suppliers in order to let them know what additional products consumers want. By doing this, it informs the private sector of the market potential, which helps the suppliers do their business planning in order to create products that will sell. They also don’t charge suppliers ‘rent’ to display their products on the supermarket’s shelves, which is standard supermarket practice.

    To sum up, the private sector needs to be involved as a partner with foundations, government, the nonprofit sector and the consumers in order to create a complete supply chain that has products developed people want, there are places for consumers to shop or consume these products, whether it be a school, a local supermarket, farmers market, store, farm stand or a CSA etc.

    Thank you Bill for your cogent comments. I wanted to bring up the need to broaden the types of partnerships in order to make a complete green supply-chain work effectively for all.

    •, 4 years ago Reply

      You’re absolutely right, Bruce. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I should add that the Vermont Community Foundation is explicitly looking to build market-driven solutions rather than a charitable model approach. So this will require the private market to participate just as you’ve advocated. Thanks again, and by the way, congrats on your new book!

      • Bruce Seifer, 4 years ago Reply

        When I heard that Vermont butter and cheese were working with foundation project related investments to help establish the farm I thought that was a great use of foundation capital.

        Access to capital all levels is critical in order to build sustainable communities.

        Good luck with slow communities.


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