ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Current nonprofit sector research and recommendations for effective day-to-day practice from ASU faculty, staff, students, and the nonprofit and philanthropic community.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011 - 8:42am
Stephanie La Loggia, M.A.

Manager of Knowledge Resources
ASU Lodestar Center

Once upon a long time ago, North America was bursting with animals that were really big. Mammoths, mastodons, giant sloths — animals we only know about from their old bones and our good imaginations. The birds were over-sized as well, and when the huge animals died, giant vultures with 20-foot wingspans would swoop down to feast on their carcasses.

And then, they vanished. For reasons scientists still theorize about, most of these large animals went extinct rather quickly. The huge vultures, once plentiful, with all varieties of Eagles, Teratorns, and giant condors, were suddenly hungry. Their food sources gone, the giant vultures soon followed the animals into mass extinction.

Except one: The California Condor.

The California Condor is the sole surviving member of the Gymnogyps genus, a castaway from the Pleistocene epoch. It’s the largest flying bird in North America. If you see one sitting in a tree, you might remark that it is the ugliest bird you’ve ever seen. But when you see it flying, unfettered in the open sky, you’ll undoubtedly think it is one of the most beautiful sights you’ll ever witness. It has a wingspan of nearly ten feet and can soar for miles without a single flap.

via Stephanie La Loggia

Condors survived over the ages because they found new food sources, such as beached whales and dead cows, and didn’t have enemies. Until they did: people. Electric power lines, lead poisoning (bullets in carcasses), habitat destruction, egg collecting, DDT poisoning, and poaching led to the condors’ decline. A famous essay penned by Loye Miller declared that condors were incompatible with people, saying they had “one wing in the grave” (37).A puppet feeds a condor chick. Wikipedia
The California Condor Recovery Program continues today, over 25 years since its inception. As of July 2011, there are 399 condors known to be living, including 188 in the wild, in California, Arizona, and Mexico. The hard work and challenges go on, but condors are back in the wild, flying free.

The condor recovery effort is my favorite example of collective impact: organizations and individuals joining together, across sectors, to coordinate and direct their efforts toward large-scale change. From the beginning, many people were keenly aware of the fact that no one organization, not even the U.S. government, could single-handedly save the condor. It required coordinated participation from many organizations. There were teams of scientists at each of the zoos, teams at each of the many government agencies, and more teams at the environmental organizations. The hundreds of people involved, from tens of organizations, across numerous activities and aspects of the effort, is extraordinary.

And all along the way, there were key players, not in stature or title, but in their commitment to bringing the diverse views and interests together toward a common goal.

The first, perhaps, was Sanford “Sandy” Wilbur, who was hired to run the California Condor Recovery Program in 1969. Wilbur considered the post “a very special trust,” (123) and set up a partnership model that “emphasized cooperation, integrity, and credibility, that way we could set some standards for other preservation efforts” (124).[1]

My uncle, Arthur Risser, was another. An ornithologist and manager at the San Diego Zoo, he was involved in the conservation effort for many years and was a proponent of captive breeding. When he passed away in 2008, he was remembered as a leader in the effort who worked to unite differing viewpoints and factions. His colleague Bill Toone, who headed the San Diego captive breeding program, gave a moving example from a California Department of Fish and Game hearing.

“It was a packed hearing and all these people were bringing up challenges (to the proposal). Art Risser never moved, and he never raised his hand — even when they mentioned him by name. I wondered 'Why doesn't he defend it,'” Toone said. “He waited until about a minute before the end of the hearing, and he answered every point and argument. In just a couple of sentences, he addressed all the issues and concerns in a beautiful way,” he said. “He got the last and very eloquent word, not because he wanted to get the last word but because he wanted to formulate concise answers that would address all the concerns.”[2]

The Grand Canyon Condor reintroduction component of the program is, by itself, a testament to the power of listening. When the reintroduction program was unveiled, it was met with intense resistance from the area’s residents, many of whom had long resented government wildlife protection programs. Enter Robert Mesta, the biologist who initially managed the program. In describing Mesta’s approach, one administrator noted that Mesta was effective because he was “an official who listened when other people talked, and for his ability to keep small fights from turning into big ones” (164).[1] In the beginning, he and his colleagues received hate mail and, sometimes, direct threats. Public resistance was so forceful that the program was suspended. Subsequently, Mesta and his colleagues began to tour the area, listening and talking to people individually about their concerns and the program. “They felt like their complaints had been ignored for years, and I think they had a point.” said Mesta (168).[1] Ultimately, the reintroduction program survived, and when the first birds were released into the wild, many of the initial opponents were present.

Shawn Farry, the lead biologist for the Arizona reintroduction program, continued this conciliatory approach when his teammates came to work with the Condors. He personally got to know the residents, including the ranchers, miners, and other locals who initially opposed the program.

“We didn’t have many enemies in the end,” Farry said (173).[1] Case in point: when one of the condors was shot and killed, the ranchers and miners in Arizona that had initially opposed the reintroduction of the condor came together and put up a reward to find the killer.

These anecdotes are a small fraction, to be sure, of the many stories where people transcended lines of interest and organization and worked together. There are many more — stories of individuals and groups successfully working together by demonstrating empathy and respect.

So, what about all the egos, politics, and conflicts? As Kania and Kramer point out in their excellent article on collective impact, success isn’t lack of conflict or high marks on group harmony. Instead, success is measured in steps toward a goal, in the distance covered, and the willingness to keep moving. There are twenty-fold more condors today than in 1987. This is success. And twenty-five years later, the recovery program still includes virtually all of the original partner organizations and groups, as well as many new ones. Truly, collective impact is as awe-inspiring as a huge bird with a 10-foot wingspan flying over the Grand Canyon.

This type of collective approach is how we should approach every large-scale social problem. Let’s kick our habit of starting new organizations and, instead, tie our individual programs and services together toward something bigger. Let’s revere individual accomplishments a little less and start heralding the work of groups a little more — like the Lodestar Foundation does when it awards the Collaboration Prize. Let’s learn to collaborate better and commit to doing it more.

On our last trip to San Diego, my daughter and I took a trip to the Natural History Museum. We walked through an exhibit of life-sized models of animals and birds, many of them Pleistocene megafauna like the giant sloths and saber-toothed tigers, long-gone from the Earth. And with them, of course, was the California Condor.

“This bird is huge!” she said. “Is it extinct?”

“No,” I said, “this is the one Uncle Art and a lot of people have worked very hard to save.”

She looked at it quizzically. “It is sooooo big! Can it fly?” she asked.

It was a good question. It’s hard to believe that something that big and cumbersome could actually fly. It’s like believing that 30 organizations and hundreds of people could actually work together and accomplish something.

“It not only flies,” I said. “It soars.”


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Stephanie La Loggia is the Manager of Knowledge Resources for the ASU Lodestar Center. Some of her past research projects include the Nonprofit Compensation & Benefits Report and Arizona Giving & Volunteering publications. Stephanie teaches undergraduate courses in the Nonprofit Leadership and Management program, and she has also been a youth summer camp director for over 20 years.

^ [1] Nielsen, John. Condor: To the Brink and Back — The Life and Times of One Giant Bird. Harper Collins Publishers, New York. 2006.
^ [2] "Obituary: Art Risser; zoo manager played key role in conservation programs." Blanca Gonzalez, San Diego Union-Tribune. January 2, 2009.

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Click here to read Stephanie La Loggia's interview with Brian Spicker on the real meaning of "collective impact."


This is such an awesome story, Stephanie. Now I understand where you get all your passion. :)

I think that the big takeaway (something you explained more fully yesterday at YNPN Phoenix's book club meeting) is that these groups may not have agreed entirely. And that's okay. What matters is that they chose one goal, one initiative, and made sacrifices to achieve that together.

I think it can often be extremely hard to set aside our differences, especially as we become so insular by constantly surrounding ourselves with like-minded people and filtering out opinions we disagree with. But ultimately we have to learn to talk to each other and work together if we want to make a significant impact. Luckily for the condor, it worked.

The fact that condors are still flying (soaring!) is a great ecological success story. And what a great tie to collective impact as well!

Many people are talking about collective impact now, and indeed it seems like the hot, new trend. But truly this work has been around a long time, as you explained here.

What the interest in collective impact has done for us is given us some clear guidelines and common language. I love the point you made about how 'group harmony' is not essential to collaborative work, yet 'listening' is.

Great advice for all of us working towards change and impact!

your post reminds me of Annie Dillard's writing. and, as you know, that's pretty high praise! I really enjoyed reading this. It's even cooler that you are related to someone who was involved in such a cool rescue effort. Now I want to go to San Diego Zoo and see the condors!

And, just to jump on the comments Kayla and Jill made, I also really liked the part about being willing to hear other people's perspectives and work through differences. I think our government could learn a thing or two about collective impact from this story. ;-) I remember a couple of years ago, at our Spring Forum that was focused on The Collaboration Prize, how the winning collaborators also emphasized tolerance and cooperation. Those words are so glibly spoken, but the concepts are so slippery to implement. That's why it is always so remarkable when people are able to put aside their own egos and agendas to bring about something truly great.

Thanks to all for these insightful comments. Kayla you make a great point about filtering. Effective collaboration/collective impact requires that individuals listen to divergent opinions and work though differences without sabotaging the effort. And Travis, yes, this is definitely something we see in government, where sometimes it is more important to win than to collectively succeed.

Jill, thanks for your critical point that collective impact is not new. Sometimes it is talked about as if it were new, and of course it isn't. However, we are understanding it better, and I think we are increasing our capacity to apply those lessons to current work.

Victoria, thanks for your reminder that the challenges are far from over, and that the work goes on.

Wow! This story had a big impact on me.

It is interesting to see that there were so many organizations wanting to solve this problem, but they had so many issues when it came to working together. I would say that this problem will still exist in the future, but may allow us to achieve greater results out of situations we have.

I am glad you told this story, because this summer I went on a multi-day hiking trip in the Grand Canyon and saw two or three California Condors. They were so amazing to watch just soar so effortlessly through the sky.
I would like to say thank you to your Uncle Risser and all the other people who helped continue the existence of this beautiful bird.

I know this is a post from over a year ago, but -since I saw my name - I can't resist commenting. It took many years of quiet discussion to be able to even bring the topic of condor captive propagation out in the open. Then, it took a tremendous amount of interaction with many individuals and groups to get all the hopes, fears, divergent opinions out in the open, where each could be put in context. We eventually developed an "informed consent" - not everybody liked the idea, but eventually most agreed that we had built a good case and that we'd considered all the alternatives. Even then, we almost lost the fight when certain Washington and New York people pushed ahead faster than our "publics" were willing to go. Internal fighting, lawsuits, etc., put the whole proposal on hold for almost five years, before credibility could be once more established.
By the way, your Uncle Art was a good friend. Sandy

"This type of collective approach is how we should approach every large-scale social problem. Let’s kick our habit of starting new organizations and, instead, tie our individual programs and services together toward something bigger. Let’s revere individual accomplishments a little less and start heralding the work of groups a little more..."

I think this quote sums up all that is best about collaboration. What I like about the story of the California Condor is that it acts as an anecdotal blueprint of how collective impact can work on larger issues. Social issues like poverty, homelessness, and preventable disease are huge issues, way too big for one person's shoulders. However, if resources like funding, infrastructure, contacts, relationships and talent are shared, not only could a common goal be found but also a means of attaining that goal.

As you said on Wednesday, the small victories must be celebrated along with the main accomplishment. I think this is key in collaborative impact since a sense of "spinning your wheels" and getting nowhere on a such a huge issue is a certainty.

By far, this was my favorite class of this semester. It gave me hope.

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