Monday, May 19, 2014

Collective Impact Reality Check

As I get ready to board a plane headed for a Collective Impact conference for funders at the Aspen Institute I am thinking about the challenges, promise and realities of collaborating across sectors in complex systems to achieve sustained positive change in the communities for which we care.

Here are three realities that I think will be helpful to check the unbridled enthusiasm that we’re about to encounter at the conference.

Collective Impact is a process, not a solution. All true advocates of this framework for collaboration acknowledge this reality up front. Our friends from FSG write about this point extensively, but it’s often lost in the translation as eager consultants and wannabe “backbones” gloss over the challenges, limitations and hard work involved in this process. My mentor and great Karen Nestor is fond of quoting Eric Hoffer about what happens when a good idea gets in the hands of sales people.  
“Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket.”
All of us who champion Collective Impact must take care to stay out of the racket business.

Achieving Collective Impact depends on transactional excellence. In all of the excitement about collaboration it is easy to lose sight of the need for nonprofits to perform their work very well. Mario Morino hammers home this point in his critically important book Leap of Reason. If nonprofits fail to be high performers able manage to outcomes but are good at collaborating what will actually be achieved? Rare is the collaboration of C-level organizations that are able to produce an A-level collaboration. And achieving Collective Impact demands an A-level collaboration. Before investing a lot of time in learning how to collaborate, nonprofits (and their funders) need to focus on elevating their own performance.

Leadership is critical. One of the many paradoxes of complex systems is that while no single entity is in control, achieving positive change is dependent on leadership. No collaboration can be successful without effective leadership. Collaborative civic leadership behavior and skills are dramatically different than traditional, hierarchical leadership. Uniting diverse stakeholders from across sectors takes a rare breed of leader who is able to build trust, foster a shared vision, and empower everyone involved. Without such dynamic leadership, the collaboration will likely be stuck at the level of “coblaboration.”

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