Do you ever imagine what it would be like if we actually were all “the change we wish to see in the world”?

This week, at a conference on Collective Impact at Stanford University, I participated with others in learning about and exploring a practice that might help bring us closer to affecting both the organizational and large-scale change we seek.

Given the challenges we face, the concept of collective impact lays out a call to action and a set of principles that help those interested in sustainability and social change work more effectively across sectoral and organizational boundaries.

This isn’t something that is new, or that hasn’t been available to us all along—but its expression and the number of people hungry for new approaches for creating transformational change merits attention.

John Kania of FSG began the day with an overview of some principles. He and FSG founder Mark Kramer, published a recent article regarding collective impact, which is exemplified by:

  1. MEANING: A shared vision and common agenda
  2. METRICS: Cooperatively defined baseline and outcome measures
  3. MUTUALITY: Collaborative attitude and benefit that supports goals
  4. MESSAGING: Continuous communications internally and externally are critical
  5. MANAGEMENT: A “backbone” organization or set of roles is essential

The helpful (or irritating) alliteration is mine, and one more important element I’ll add which grounds a collective impact approach is MINDSET.

Kania mentioned three main mindset shifts that we need to embrace in order for a collective impact approach to be effective:

  • Moving from technical to adaptive solutions—there’s no quick fix and we don’t know what we will face given more complex challenges and relationships. We need to allow for emergent discussions and problem-solving as we work together on large-scale change.
  • Replacing “silver bullet” with “silver buckshot” approaches—there is no one solution (and particularly no one model that can be adapted for different scenarios); we need to experiment with multiple approaches adapted to issue and place, and not be afraid to miss the target with much of what we try.
  • Shifting from taking credit to building credibility—in a theme echoed throughout the day, the idea of humility and mutual gains asks that we work together on the mission, not on building our organizational reputation.

John’s keynote was followed by two stories from the field, starting off with the energetic Jeff Edmonson of Cincinnati’s Strive Partnership, which has successfully brought together a whole range of actors in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Area to focus on “cradle to career” support and education opportunities for children and youth. They’ve also inspired similar efforts in a handful of other cities and regions around the country including Houston, Portland, OR, Richmond, VA and here in the SF Bay Area.

Jeff’s major lessons learned included:

  • Build shared vision and responsibility by “making it a movement” rather than getting bogged down in minutiae of organizational structure and governance, and through “shared accountability, differentiated responsibility” to guarantee commitment and clarify each organization’s role.
  • Use evidence-based decision making starting with whatever baseline data you have—it’s easier to start with something (even if flawed), than to have no way to measure your progress from the beginning.
  • Take collaborative action by agreeing on common language, understanding that capacity of participating groups matters, and re-affirming clear roles and goals.
  • Invest in sustainability through setting up a culture and a group of supporting organizations and practices, and realize that in terms of funding “one size DOES NOT fit all”: they found that aligned funding, rather than creating a pooled fund for this work was more effective in supporting collaboration.

Howard Shapiro of Mars, Inc. then provided a very different, but equally inspiring story based on his experience focused on balancing economic development, agricultural productivity, and conservation in the cacao fields of Cote d’Ivoire. He emphasized the distinction that he makes in moving beyond supporting environmental, economic and social benefits to incorporating cultural and ecological perspectives in this work.

In the conversation that followed the morning sessions, these issues came to bear in exploring the cultural barriers we have—internationally and in communities here in the US—to doing such work. Although collaborative efforts are gaining ground in the non-profit community, collective impact asks that we move beyond collaboration in working together effectively over the long-term.

While many organizations focus on working in and with communities, the social sector still is challenged by working in community with other groups to achieve large-scale impact. Though this is shifting in some places, funder priorities and the timeline for available funding or expected results also affect the ability to work in different ways, and we are just beginning to explore the potential of working in a cross-sectoral fashion.

We need different forms of organization to help bridge these challenges, including and understanding that a long-term, systems-oriented approach outlined by a collective impact framework is essential. In any ecosystem it is the strength and diversity of the connections that matters as much as the contribution of any one element of the system.

The afternoon panels provided more context for how non-profits and funders could scale their impact more effectively and profiled effective organizations and philanthropic efforts.

In a panel on scaling non-profit impact, scholar Jane Wei-Skillern made the observation that organizations with significant success tend to rely more on leveraging external networks that pursuing a traditional organizational growth strategy.

The tension between building effective organizations and building effective networks also was highlighted, with an observation that while scaling individual groups can share models and provide incentive for others to innovate, the arrangement of strong organizations in relationships ultimately created greater opportunity for impact.

Other important questions raised touched upon topics worthy of entire conferences or workshops of their own, such as:

  • How does my behavior need to change to work collectively?
  • What is the nature of the changing social compact, and whose responsibility is it?
  • How do we re-orient what we reward in our work, so we can focus on mission success and serving as a node in a larger ecology, rather than valuing organizational success and acting as a hub?

A final panel for the day was comprised of funders from around the region and the country touching upon their role in fostering and participating in collective impact. A key question that was raised involved how funders’ roles need to change given this new approach—how can they act (and be seen) more as partners than simply patrons? While no clear answers to this ongoing challenge emerged, it is clear from both panelists and the range of funders present in the room that collective impact holds great promise—not simply for bolstering a social return on investment but as a new way of doing business than can add value to promising practices being used by individual organizations in the field.

The concept of collective impact is not new, but we still have a long way to go in honing the practice of working together to leverage large-scale social change. In the process, we need to be extremely sensitive to issues of capacity and equity while breaking through organizational and sectoral boundaries, and continually confront our own assumptions about what is possible.

Kania and Kramer’s work on collective impact is laudable in focusing our attention on how we can be more effective in promoting true and lasting social transformation. Interestingly, the experience of learning more about and discussing this concept with others could have benefitted from more of a “collective impact” approach in design—while we did get opportunities for small group conversation, we spent much of the day in plenary listening to speakers and panels on the topic, rather than exploring the issue in a more interactive forum. Kramer’s closing comments also rang true as he observed—despite wonderful presentations from funders, social sector collaboratives, and even a major multi-national corporation—that we could have explored the importance and practice of cross-sectoral work in more detail.

Beyond the opportunity to scale our impact, it seemed to me that the most important lessons that emerge from this work speak to the imperative to transform our relationships individually and organizationally in order to create change, and that in leveraging existing resources we create the new structures we need without having to build new organizations.

The number of people attracted to this topic made me hopeful for seeing a shift in the ways we work together more effectively in the coming years, and for what might result.

DIG IN’s work often focuses on the question of how our behavior needs to change in order to work collectively in a meaningful way in order to affect social transformation. My next post will focus on the individual and organizational skills required to work collaboratively, and some guidelines for how to catalyze, initiate, and sustain collaborative efforts for long-term collective impact.

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