Building Creative Collaboration for Social Impact

A perhaps lesser-known role of the Masoko Project teams since 2011 has been to host what we call “Smallholder Meet-Ups” – events that bring together stakeholders from a wide variety of organizations, businesses and programs that have a shared vision of improving their communities here in Tanzania. The goal of the events is to create a space in which participants can exchange ideas, successes, and failures.

The 2015-2016 Masoko Project team hosted their first Smallholder Meet-Up on Tuesday, exploring a theme of Creative Collaboration for Social Impact. This idea came from a genuine need that we have recognized in the development sphere in our time here. Tanzania, like many other developing nations, is inundated with non-profits and NGOs. Some of them are extremely successful in the work they do. Others, not so much.

Some of the most successful organizations I’ve encountered in my time here seem to have a few common things that they do particularly well. One of them, and perhaps the most significant in my opinion, is collaborating. Our country director, Ana Le Rocha, often says, “Stick to what you do best”. Poverty is an incredibly complex issue. Addressing any one of its many causes or treating any one of its many manifestations will not get you very far. Nor, however, will trying to create a single intervention or project that seeks to tackle them all.

The better approach is to create a network of focused and effective organizations and projects that can collaborate, build off of each other’s successes and fill in the gaps between our areas of focus. In essence, utilize a coordinated effort of people “sticking to what they do best” to deepen our collective impact and expand our reach.

An excellent example of this comes from one of our guest speakers, Drew Johnson, representing TechnoServe Tanzania. One of the projects he is working on pairs Vodaphone, a major telecom company with Pathfinder, a sexual and reproductive health organization. Vodaphone has trained Community Health Workers from Pathfinder to use and enroll people in their m-Powa service, a mobile-based banking platform that gives people access to savings, interest generation and loans, all through their cell phones. Pathfinder utilizes the mobile banking platform to set up savings plans for expecting mothers. Vodaphone benefits by relying on the personal networks that Pathfinder has spent years building to extend the reach of their service.

This is obviously extremely challenging to do and it’s naïve to think that the only the things missing are a willingness to work together and the humility that is required to do so. There are issues of funding, of privacy, of intellectual property and of philosophy standing in the way, and these are all significant. Not all organizations are going to be able to get along, despite the best efforts and intentions of their leadership. Many can though, and as we saw at our event, many are. When asked what the biggest hurdle to beginning these relationships was, everyone gave the same answer: finding the right contact.

Beyond discussing the theme of collaboration and the importance of prioritizing it in development work, the bigger goal of the event on Tuesday was to create an avenue to navigate that huge first roadblock to building a collaborative relationship. We ran what was essentially a single’s meet-up for NGOs. Everyone there came with the expectation that they could come away from the evening with a potential match for collaboration. In one of the activities, guests made posters that looked a lot like hard-copy online dating profiles. They wrote which organization they were from, what field they work in, the kinds of people they work with, and what outcomes they might be looking to get out of a collaborative relationship.

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The guests then had time to walk around the room to look at all the posters and stick their business cards or contact info onto any “profile” that interested them. We followed this up with a happy hour, where people could follow up directly with anyone who peaked their interest.

It was fun, a little goofy and highly effective. Every single attendee that I spoke to said they had found at least one person or organization that they were going to follow up with outside of the event. We can’t yet know what will come of the connections made at the event, but we do know that about fifty people representing roughly three dozen organizations of all shapes and sizes came away with from the evening with that elusive first contact and are a step closer to having a dramatically deeper impact in the communities they serve.

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