To Solve the World's Problems, Start by Building Consensus

Funders supporting social impact organizations can lead the way in building consensus among diverse coalitions to solve the world’s most pressing problems.

January 27th Articles 8 min read
Saving the world Website

By Lisa Benson

Everyone in the social impact space is in the business of solving problems. In fact, many hundreds of organizations and funders are working to solve the same problems. In many ways, this ad hoc division of labor makes sense. After all, when it comes to the really major issues, like climate change, wealth inequality, racial bias, and healthcare, no single organization could ever hope to solve them on their own. These big-picture issues are far too knotty and complex.

But when multiple organizations all work in relative isolation on the same issue, the result is diluted impact. System-level problems require system-level solutions. That means joining forces and achieving consensus to address the root causes of the problems that most vex us.

The question is how?

We propose that funders like you can and should play a pivotal role. You can lead the way in building consensus among diverse coalitions to solve the world’s most pressing problems.

Multiplying Impact with Consensus-Building

When it comes to big, complicated issues, it makes sense for key stakeholders (including various nonprofits) to work together. Doing so allows them to find synergies and pool resources. It also gives them the opportunity to build consensus around a particular approach or solution.

Another benefit of consensus-building is that it provides a way for multiple disciplines to come together and tackle much larger problems. Depending on the issue, this may include social impact organizations, academics, government entities, policymakers, scientists, activists, industry leaders, enthusiasts, and the like. Consensus-building efforts bring these disparate groups out of isolated silos and into conversation with one another.

In some cases, stakeholders may appear diametrically opposed to each other (for example, environmentalists and loggers or ranchers and wolf preservationists). When you adopt a consensus-building approach, you acknowledge these differences. At the same time, you commit to working diplomatically to find commonalities. This means starting with the idea that each stakeholder has something valuable to bring to the table. It also means checking your biases, assumptions, and traditions at the door.

Indeed, the biggest changes often happen when groups from opposite sides of an issue find common ground and work together in the interest of getting something (rather than nothing) done. Even better: A consensus-based approach that involves all the affected stakeholders often leads to a larger vision that supports a wider net of outcomes. In fact, building consensus at a systems level can quickly take you beyond your initial intent, generating unexpected social or environmental improvements as well as business opportunities.

In short, consensus-building multiplies impact and leads to bigger, better, more creative solutions.

Consensus in Action: The Sagehen Approach to California Wildfires

All this talk of consensus-building may seem like little more than a pleasant-sounding dream. After all, it’s often hard enough to agree on the cause of a problem, let alone reach consensus about a solution. But we know that it can happen because it already has.

Take the Sagehen Field Creek Station’s decade-long quest to reduce the risk of uncontrollable forest fires, for example. Located in the eastern Sierra Nevada, the Sagehen Creek Field Station is embedded in the 9000-acre Sagehen Experimental Forest, which is owned by the University of California, Berkeley.

Back in the early 2000s, Sagehen’s manager, Jeff Brown, realized they had a problem. Like many protected forests, Sagehen had long adopted an approach to forest management that sought to protect the trees at all costs. That meant they didn't harvest any trees and forest fires were extinguished as quickly as possible. What Brown realized was that this approach, which lead to dense, scrubby forestland, was actually contributing to the rise in so-called megafires. He knew they needed to more actively manage the forests using ancient practices like thinning and prescribed burns. But he wasn’t sure what this would look like in practice.

Instead of trying to solve the problem in isolation, Brown built a broad coalition of stakeholders and sought consensus. This group included environmental nonprofits, the Forest Service, scientists, loggers and lumber mills, local watershed activists, and more. Over the course of 10 years, this seemingly incompatible collective arrived at a consensus about how to manage Sagehen’s acreage. (The Moore Foundation supplied some of the funding to support the Sagehen project.)

The Sagehen solution — a particular protocol of thinning and prescribed burns — was so successful that it is now being adopted more broadly in the state of California to help reduce the risk of major forest fires.

The Role of Funders in Consensus-Building

Funders are in a unique position to lead the way in building coalitions and seeking consensus-driven solutions to complex problems.

For one thing, funders already think about issues from a system-wide perspective. And, because they work with so many different organizations, they have a bird’s-eye view of the issues they champion. This gives them a natural perspective on where to begin in terms of bringing together the right mix of stakeholders. Not just that, funders have the connections and influence to back it up. They are able to bring various constituents together and move them into productive conversations.

Funders also tend to have a great deal of experience working with various organizations on a cause. They have seen different organizations approach the same problem with very different theories of change. This gives funders the ability to speak with confidence c about which approaches have worked and which haven't.

Finally, funders (especially big philanthropists) are primed for consensus-building leadership because they are able to take the long view. In fact, they can take an even longer view than the government, which is subject to election cycles and term limits.

Remember, it took the Sagehen coalition a decade to arrive at a final, consensus-driven plan to manage the Sagehen Experimental Forest. Consensus-building work is slow and (at times) challenging work. It requires dedication and a willingness to stick with the process for the long haul.

How Funders Can Take the Reins in Consensus-Building

Funders like you can meaningfully multiply impact by seeking to build consensus. Use the following tips to build a coalition of stakeholders and guide them toward a consensus-driven solution.

  • Step up to the plate. The first step is simply to decide that consensus-building is needed and commit to leading the way in making it happen. Consensus-building initiatives almost always begin with a point person, someone who steps up and drives the momentum. As a funder, you have the opportunity to leverage your brand and network of connections to draw stakeholders, potential donors, and community leaders into a larger conversation together. To do this well, you should commit to developing and maintaining relationships and serving as a bridge-builder rather than an activist.
  • Keep the long view. Commit to sticking with the process, even if it takes many years rather than months. Know that it takes time to build consensus about how to untangle the biggest knots of important issues.
  • Make room for everyone at the table. In order to achieve meaningful consensus, you must bring together all the key stakeholders — even those with opposing perspectives. Doing so requires clear, transparent communication as a prerequisite to developing trust. This might mean holding large consensus-building meetings with numerous stakeholders as you work to identify commonalities and bridge differences. Expect to put forth a great deal of effort. But know that when you involve everyone your issue touches, you stand a better chance of arriving at the best, most sustainable solution. Remember, the Sagehen project allowed everyone from environmental nonprofits and watershed activists to loggers and lumber-mill owners to offer input. With time and open dialogue, these “strange bedfellows” arrived at consensus.
  • Use data and metrics. As much as possible, use data and metrics to keep everyone on the same page. You can also use data to help show progress, make the case for next steps, and to entice new players to the table.
  • Be open to out-of-the-box solutions. Depending on your particular issue, you may find that you need to bring together a diverse group of stakeholders. These different groups may have widely divergent goals, viewpoints, and approaches. Instead of viewing that as a challenge, consider it an opportunity to identify new or unexpected solutions. Look back to how things were done prior to large-scale human intervention for inspiration and solutions.
  • Consider whether your solution can be scaled. For example, foresters are now adopting the Sagehen approach to prescribed burns to all of California’s forests. Can you apply your approach to other locations or communities? If so, invest in creating a framework that offers a playbook for recreating your solution. Make the framework available as an open resource for other communities and organizations to use as a springboard.
  • Stay informed. While you are working to build consensus and develop a strategy, stay tuned to what’s happening in the wider world that relates to your cause. Strive to understand the interconnections and dependencies. This information allows your collective to proactively adapt based on what’s happening at the state, national, or global levels. Be nimble, but don’t lose sight of your bigger-picture goals.
  • Repurpose byproducts. Think about how to repurpose any byproducts that are created by your process. This applies to physical byproducts (such as wood chips) or intangibles (such as innovative ideas). Seek out partners who might benefit from those byproducts to expand your coalition and maximize impact.
  • Use design thinking. Make sure you don't get too process-driven, wonky, or circular. This can weigh process down and prevent your coalition from ever taking action. Rather than trying to achieve consensus on the entire process out of the gate, find ways to get people together, make decisions, and take some decisive first steps. You can continue iterating from there.

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