NASA didn’t build the Lunar Module, or design the space suits, or even code computers for the Apollo program. It did something even more significant—it coordinated all the moving parts. Over the last year, the Southwest Florida Community Foundation, which has been rebranded as Collaboratory, has been creating a new context for community problem-solving by taking a cue from NASA. With the help of activist and humanitarian Dan Pallotta, it’s aligning the vision of organizations across the region in a bold effort to make all five counties fully equitable in an 18-year timeline. “Collaboratory has set a deadline in the solving of these community issues and had the courage to say ‘yes,’” Pallotta says. “Southwest Florida is not New York; it’s a smaller community where you can really experiment and explore. They’re modeling the kind of leadership and behavior we need more of in the U.S. to make progress on our big social problems.”
According to Pallotta, the large social dilemmas nearly every community faces stems from a lack of hierarchy. “We aren’t organized to solve problems,” he says. Instead of setting up a community’s leadership like a pyramid model, where someone is delegating, there’s a flat line with everyone—school superintendents, police chiefs, heads of nonprofits—on equal footing; no one is at the top. “What you would need is an entity to coordinate these people that has the personnel and time—something like NASA,” he says.
Sarah Owen, president and CEO of Fort Myers-based Collaboratory, started following Pallotta around 2008, when his book Uncharitable—which Stanford Social Innovation Review said “deserves to become the nonprofit sector’s new manifesto”—was released. Her shift into philanthropy from investor relations and corporate communications coincided with the book’s debut. “It was a great time for me to be exposed to that kind of thinking because I had come out of corporate America and I was navigating the charitable sector,” she says. “I thought so many nonprofits and boards are seeking this kind of inspiration and engagement. They’re trapped by the constraints that Dan lays out in his TED Talk and book.”