Generating ideas, connections, and action

An Introduction to Impact Brokers

Janice Epstein

Impact Brokers Summary

Impact Brokers is a cooperative of nonprofits, investors, consultants and community partners that is coming together to improve our collective capacity to tackle complex social challenges. Our Boston member circle has been engaged in individual and shared capacity building activities, leadership development and peer learning since the beginning of 2008.

Our Boston circle members are a diverse group of people who share a common passion for bridging differences and a deep commitment to making the world a better place for our children and families, starting in our own community. We all live, work, and/or volunteer in Greater Boston and represent diverse ethnic, racial, cultural, linguistic, gender and sexual orientation backgrounds. The organizations and practices span many sectors, fields and constituencies and vary in age, organizational stage and geography. In many ways we represent a “network of networks.”

Our goals include:

  • Building leadership capability to maximize mission sustainability and adapt to rapid change.
  • Enhancing our effectiveness by developing tangible skills in organizational and community development.
  • Leveraging cross-sector networks to create innovative approaches with increasing returns to scale.
  • Catalyzing our community to identify common problems, discover root causes, strengthen collaborative capacity, and contribute to a financially vibrant, innovative, and sustainable sector.

We are accomplishing these goals with four complementary strategies:

  1. Holistic Assessment- Members work together to create a realistic picture of pressing social problems that identifies assets, assesses challenges, and highlights opportunities for innovation and change.
  2. Organizational Capabilities Development- Nonprofits identify individual organizational needs and are matched to consultants who provide capacity building at a reduced rate.
  3. Collective Leadership and Network Building- We strengthen social capital by creating shared approaches such as alliance building, joint funding ventures and/or shared operations.
  4. Continuous Learning- We convene learning community meetings, facilitate informal dialogue, and utilize action research and evaluation to continuously identify, create, reflect on, and document successful change strategies.

Why Now?

The world we live in is getting more and more complex. The boundaries that separate private and public and research and practice are breaking down; organizational, community, and human development are becoming increasingly intertwined. Many of the old ways of doing things simply do not work as well. Rapidly expanding technology is giving us instant access to unlimited ideas and forcing us to re-examine many of our basic assumptions about the world and our place in it. This is evident everywhere from the internet and terrorist cells to advances in brain science. In short, we have entered a new era- the networked information age.

Most of the fundamental social problems facing the next generation are adaptive challenges. From reforming education to ensuring clean air, the public sector increasingly faces intractable problems that are outside the realm of one person, one organization, or one community to solve alone and require fundamentally new leadership capacities. Unfortunately, the majority of our attempts to meet these challenges are holdovers from the last century. And it shows.

While adaptive challenges like education reform cross sectoral, geographic, cultural, and philosophical lines, the approaches we have used to influence them often have not. Traditional capacity building strategies favor expensive and sporadic quick fixes that address a single issue (i.e., marketing), approach (i.e., strategic planning), or organization at a time. The culture of philanthropic giving actually reinforces these silos by funding individual programs with small short-term grants, requiring low overhead, and encouraging services to be duplicated over thousands of small organizations. Together these trends have created a nonprofit ecosystem populated with underfed “lone wolves” competing for meager resources in an uncharted wilderness.

Why Impact Brokers?

Traditional capacity building has focused on developing human capital (in individuals) and physical capital (in infrastructure and organizations). Impact Brokers is expanding that focus to include social capital (in relationships and networks) and to conceptualize capacity in collective terms. In today’s world, leadership capacity is about the self-organization of our global society and the vision, the values and the will to continually make progress over time.

Central to this new vision of capacity is learning. Learning by individuals and organizations about which of their actions is effective, and learning by the larger systems in which they are embedded about how to respond creatively and adapt in the face of change, crises or simply new information. An individual, organization, or system with capacity is one that is constantly learning and adapting. Networks provide a remarkably promising organizing principle to achieve our ambitious goals. In a community with capacity, ideas flow freely through networks of players, each of whom are capable of acting autonomously, coming together in flexible ways to respond to challenges as they arise.

Our members are already tapping into the power of social capital and networks in innovative ways that can serve as learning opportunities for the entire field. For example, Latino After School Network (LASI) leverages the power of networks to better support and pool funding for nine organizations serving Latino youth. They offer a leadership and apprenticeship program for teens across all nine organizations, developing the collective capacity of the next generation of Latino nonprofit leaders. Brookview House is creating the building blocks for economic and personal success for homeless women and children by collaborating with networks of partner organizations to offer a holistic empowerment approach that breaks the cycle of poverty.

Building Impact is a groundbreaking public/private partnership that is increasing volunteerism, philanthropy and civic engagement by creating a large-scale network that connects dozens of nonprofits with companies, families and individuals in the buildings where they live and work. By bringing these organizations together, creating a network with a shared mission and diverse approaches, we are creating a larger connected ecosystem that is more resilient and adaptive than any one of us could be alone. This is the future of sustainability in the network age.


1. Ronald A. Heifetz, John V. Kania, & Mark R. Kramer, Leading Boldly, Stanford Social Innovation Review 2004
2. D. Brinkerhoff, Organizational Legitimacy, Capacity, and Capacity Development (Morgan and Qualman 1996), 2005
3. J. Innes and D. Booher, The Impact of Collaborative Planning on Governance Capacity, Urban & Regional Development, 2003