Bridge-Building for Social Transformation

Synergos’ approach to overcoming poverty is based on collaboration. In our work around the world, we’ve found that an important element of successful collaboration is bridge-building - creating and sustaining connections among important stakeholders.

Such bridge-building has helped Synergos and the leaders and institutions we work with reduce maternal mortality in Namibia, improve child nutrition in India, and generate innovations to improve the condition of children in South Africa, among other achievements.

Recently, we looked at bridge-building in a five-country research project led by L. David Brown, a former research fellow at Harvard University, the results of which are presented in an article in the winter 2015 edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Dave writes that:

“Bridge-building initiatives are hard to launch, challenging to maintain, and difficult to expand and institutionalize. But by mobilizing the resources and energies of diverse stakeholders, they create the potential to solve intractable social problems. A world marked by globalization, expanding expectations, proliferating diversity, and ever more limited resources creates increasing demand for solutions that involve diverse interests. Bridge-building that enables social transformation can be critical to meeting that demand.”

The research pointed to five key themes in successful bridge-building efforts:

Bridge-Building for Social Transformation: Five Themes





1. Compelling, locally generated goals Integrate international and national perspectives into goals that are compelling to the local actors who must implement them
  • Adapting outside ideas to local issues
  • Clarifying relevance of an initiative to local values and priorities
  • Demonstrating the need for cross-boundary innovation
2. Cross-boundary leadership systems Build initial coalitions and networks of leadership that extend across diverse stakeholder groups
  • Building a credible starting coalition
  • Managing cross-boundary tensions
  • Representing an initiative within a larger context
3. Generative theories of change Develop diagnoses and theories of change that guide action, enable assessment, and support ongoing learning
  • Diagnosing complex and poorly understood problems
  • Guiding action and accountability
  • Adapting to emerging challenges
4. Systems that enable and protect innovation Create vehicles to support innovations and to protect them from premature attacks
  • Enabling cross-boundary creativity
  • Supporting risky pilot projects
  • Protecting innovations from entrenched interests
5. Investment in institutionalizing change Mobilize resources for the expansion of change efforts, and build long-term legitimacy for new boundaries and practices
  • Expanding and sustaining change
  • Coping with turnover among key actors
  • Establishing and legitimizing new boundaries and practices

To Learn More

Thanks to Anna Davis, Michael Juan, Namita Kumari, Ana Karina Lòpez, and Vanessa Sayers for developing the Namibia, Philippines, India, Ecuador and South Africa case studies respectively and for their contributions to learning lessons from their comparison.

January 2015