Wednesday, July 25, 2012

By Stefan Lanfer, Knowledge Officer, Barr Foundation

There is a lively debate in the social sector about effectiveness. In April, Peter Karoff jumped in to debate with a post on this blog called, “What’s Going on Here?” Karoff argued for an approach that blends both art and science – one that depends on logic, left-brain analytics, and explicit outcomes, while remaining open to complexity, disruption, and emergence.

But what does that actually look like in practice?

One answer is the Barr Fellowship

, which Ellen Remmer touched on in her post last week, “Remember Social Capital?” and which also just appeared as a case study in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (“Networking a City”). The Fellowship recognizes some of Boston’s most gifted social change leaders. It includes a three-month sabbatical, collective learning journeys to the global south (for example, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Brazil, Haiti), and a series of retreats. These are all carefully designed and facilitated (with help from Interaction Institute for Social Change) to allow for personal rejuvenation and authentic relationships of trust and respect to form among Fellows. This trust and respect, as Ellen noted in her post, is proving itself to be the “currency of social change” in Boston – with Barr Fellows playing a hand in a growing list of boundary-crossing collaborations, like the Boston Promise Initiative, or the District-Charter Compact to name just two of many.

On one hand, the Barr Fellowship is science…It was designed based on careful research. From the beginning Barr has invested in evaluation (including social network analysis) to learn, adapt, and improve. A detailed logic model makes explicit our assumptions and hypotheses about how an investment in leaders and their connections will translate into positive impact on them, their organizations, and Boston.

But the Fellowship is also art… Barr has never prescribed outcomes or specific collective actions. The Fellowship is a bet on relationships and emergence. This is why the authors of the SSIR case study originally proposed the title, “What’s love got to do with it?” (which may have gotten the editorial OK, if the same edition wasn’t also running a piece called, “What’s sex got to do with it?” Who knows?)

As Maureen O’Brien noted in her post “Why Don’t We Make a Scene? Together.” there is a lot of buzz about “Collective Impact,” and for good reason. Collaboration offers the possibility of breaking through a persistent pattern – where isolated gains fail to translate to lasting, system-wide change. But collaboration, as O’Brien reminds us, starts with individuals. The Barr Fellowship adds to this insight. Some collaborations do spring from individuals merely recognizing the assets others bring, and the potential for collective action. Yet when those individuals first come to truly respect, trust, and even love one other, then collective action is imbued with even greater power.

It is art meets science. It is science meets art. It is impact at first love.

Stefan Lanfer is Knowledge Officer at the Barr Foundation. To learn more about the Barr Fellowship, visit