Thursday, November 21, 2013

3 Lessons from Rereading Collective Impact

I try to reread three of my favorite books every year or so -- A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, The Longest Silence by Thomas McGuane and A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean. Each time I crack them open I learn something new about myself, the authors and my world. For example, over the last few re-readings of Aldo’s seminal work I’ve been strengthened by the revelation that he was writing about my work world, not just the natural world.  I apply his views on complexity and community nearly every day.

It’s been nearly two years since I read the first article published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review on Collective Impact at the urging of @karen_nestor. (Perhaps this post will inspire Karen to start sharing her wit and wisdom via Twitter.) Like many who work within the complex systems that make up the civic sector I immediately rejoiced at having a new, sharp and shared vocabulary to describe my work and what I believed needed to happen to achieve the kind of change sought by the diverse organizations that make up the Fund for Our Economic Future.

It isn’t an exaggeration to say the article transformed my work -- not so much what I did, but how I did it and how I described it to others. As the “Collective Impact” framework has become more broadly accepted it has also become something of a buzz term. And like many buzz terms, “Collective Impact” is at risk of losing its meaning almost as fast as it spreads. The new forum launched by FSG and the Aspen Institute clearly is designed to make sure that the true meaning and value of “Collective Impact” isn’t diluted by time or popularity.

Thinking about this prompted me to wonder if my understanding of Collective Impact has been diluted. So I went back and reread the original Collective Impact article. Just as I learn new lessons about family, love and fly fishing each time I travel back to Western Montana with the Maclean family, rereading the CI article provided me with new insights into the challenges of sustaining effective collaborations. Here are three key “lessons” I got from rereading the first Collective Impact article:

1. We must work across sectors and that requires a long-term perspective: “The problem with relying on the isolated impact of individual organizations is further compounded by the isolation of the nonprofit sector. Social problems arise from the interplay of governmental and commercial activities, not only from the behavior of social sector organizations. As a result, complex problems can be solved only by cross-sector coalitions that engage those outside the nonprofit sector...Participants need several years of regular meetings to build up enough experience with each other to recognize and appreciate the common motivation behind their different efforts. They need time to see that their own interests will be treated fairly, and that decisions will be made on the basis of objective evidence and the best possible solution to the problem, not to favor the priorities of one organization over another.”

We live in an age where instant gratification isn’t nearly fast enough. Who is willing to work “several years” to develop the capacity to achieve collective impact? And who is willing to admit that they need to work with “those people” -- whether they be in the public, private, nonprofit, civic or philanthropic sectors? Many ask why is this work is so hard. This is why.

2. Collaboration requires a systemic approach:  “The expectation that collaboration can occur without a supporting infrastructure is one of the most frequent reasons why it fails. The backbone organization requires a dedicated staff separate from the participating organizations who can plan, manage, and support the initiative through ongoing facilitation, technology and communications support, data collection and reporting, and handling the myriad logistical and administrative details needed for the initiative to function smoothly. Collective impact also requires a highly structured process that leads to effective decision making.”

Very few people like process -- most of us just want to do. The best entrepreneur I know says that the more risky a new venture is the more process is needed. We know this is the case for collaborations too, but how many of us are willing to put the time and resources into developing processes that empower cross-sector collaborations? Sounds painful and boring. Getting something done -- now that’s exciting and fun.

3. Collective impact requires funders to shift their perspective: “As successful as Strive has been, it has struggled to raise money, confronting funders’ reluctance to pay for infrastructure and preference for short-term solutions. Collective impact requires instead that funders support a long-term process of social change without identifying any particular solution in advance. They must be willing to let grantees steer the work and have the patience to stay with an initiative for years, recognizing that social change can come from the gradual improvement of an entire system over time, not just from a single breakthrough by an individual organization. This requires a fundamental change in how funders see their role, from funding organizations to leading a long-term process of social change. It is no longer enough to fund an innovative solution created by a single nonprofit or to build that organization’s capacity. Instead, funders must help create and sustain the collective processes, measurement reporting systems, and community leadership that enable cross-sector coalitions to arise and thrive.”

Shifting from an isolated to a collective impact framework requires everyone within the complex systems to change. Those with the least incentive to change are the funders -- private, public and philanthropic. One funder friend of mine and a huge champion of Collective Impact recently shared how she dismissed a recent grant application because it didn’t fit the framework she was accustomed to. Two colleagues pointed out  that the grantee was pursuing a fresh, collective approach. She told this story on herself to remind me how hard it is for funders to make the switch to Collective Impact stick.

After rereading the original Collective Impact article, I am going to be encouraging others to do the same. And I will keep rereading it, as well. We need to constantly remind ourselves that this is long-term, rigorous work that requires us all to behave very differently.

1 comment:

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