A One-Size-Fits-All Solution for Large Scale Change?

Sometimes it takes an outsider to hold up a mirror to bring clarity to your journey.

This week I received an email from one of our government funders that included a link to an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

The article talked about creating collective impact for social change by working collaboratively across sectors. It pointed out that collaboration, partnerships, networks, and other joint efforts to address specific social challenges, are nothing new. However, as our funder pointed out, the project we’re working on together is a form of collective impact because it is focusing on long-term commitments by a group of key stakeholders from different sectors committed to addressing a specific social issue.

Whether it’s improving education, reducing and preventing childhood obesity, or in this specific case, an initiative focused on supporting communities to become more diversity-friendly, it is getting clearer that large-scale social change comes from better cross-sector coordination rather than from the isolated intervention of individual organizations. Greater progress can be made in alleviating many of our most serious and complex social problems when social profits, governments, businesses, and the public are brought together around a common agenda to create collective impact.

Too often, the article suggests, we’ve overlooked the potential for collective impact because we are used to focusing on independent action as the primary vehicle for social change. 

Additionally, the article refers to five conditions that need to be in place to ensure success: (1) a common agenda or vision for change reflecting a joint understanding of the problem and how it will be approached (2) a shared measurement system (3) mutually reinforcing activities whereby participants undertake a specific set of activities at which it excels, in a way that supports and coordinates with the actions of others (4) ongoing communication to develop trust and to recognize and appreciate the common motivation behind their different efforts, and (5) a backbone or supporting, independent organization that is able to plan, manage, and support the initiative through ongoing facilitation, technology and communications support, data collection and reporting.

Our experience with ACE Communities suggests these conditions are right on the money. We’ve also learned that transparency needs to be a key principle in successfully managing collaboration and complexity. Whether it’s determining roles and responsibilities or how decisions are made, parameters need to be clear and understood by all.

It is also essential to play nice. Collective impact requires innovation that is often messy and muddled. The work simply won’t fit within nice neat boxes. This reinforces the need for an independent or backbone organization especially if some of the organizations involved are used to a culture that is by design more formal and hierarchical in nature. 

We’ve also had experience with another so-called partner who lost sight of the intent of the initiative and disciplined the players involved as if they were unruly children. Disrespecting one another’s expertise or muscling in another’s turf simply can’t be tolerated. Everyone needs to stay focused on the destination and work collaboratively to get there.

Trust is imperative to collaboration and the only way to get it is to be deliberate and consistent with communication efforts. Participation needs to be welcomed and invited within a culture that celebrates curiosity, a willingness to embrace experimentation, risk taking, exploratory thinking, and idea generation. When that takes place it is a much simpler matter to connect the dots between those involved in order to create a cohesive and synergistic direction that everyone can get behind. 

Strange as it may seem, collective impact might just be a one-size-fits-all solution for large scale change that will enable us to solve today’s most serious social problems with the resources we already have at our disposal.

Posted on 04-25-11

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