Unlocking Collective Impact

By: Hayley Morris, AEGN Board Member

If you are like me, the term collective impact is a new concept, so getting my head around it can take some reminding and repetition. For a quick refresher, here is my version of what collective impact is all about and how to get started on a collective impact project.

The definition

According to Collective Impact Australia, collective impact is:

A framework for facilitating and achieving large scale social change. It is a structured and disciplined approach to bringing cross-sector organisations together to focus on a common agenda that results in long-lasting change…

In the 2011 Stanford Social Innovation Review, Kania and Kramer identified five key conditions that are inherent in collective impact work:

  1. A common agenda
  2. Measured results
  3. A plan of action that coordinates participants
  4. Continuous communication within the network
  5. A backbone organisation to coordinate

Why use a collective impact framework?

Quite simply, collective impact is useful when the problem being worked on is extremely complex. Here is what I think creates a complex problem:

  • The problem affects many different people and organisations
  • There is not one magical solution that will solve the problem
  • There is uncertainty and differing views about defining the problem and consequently what the solutions are
  • When multiple solutions must be worked on simultaneously or they will have limited impact if worked on in isolation

Getting started with collective impact

You know your problem is complex, you know you want to do something about it, but where do you go and what do you do?

Ideally work is already being done on your problem by a collaborative group! Seek out that network and find out how to be a part of it. As the name suggests, the power in collective impact is in the collective; so don’t try and recreate where other work may already be happening.

If you find yourself the one spearheading a collective impact project (as I have with sustainable food systems), then the rather daunting first step involves a deep understanding of the system of which this problem exists in. One way of undertaking this task is to use systems mapping, a process of mapping how a group thinks about the problem in question, including the positive and negative pressures that are placed on the corresponding system.

The systems mapping process is a collaborative process (not surprising!) that should be undertaken with multiple stakeholders that are relevant to your problem. Choosing the right facilitator or systems mapping consultant is key!

The aims of the systems mapping process appear to be threefold:

  1. They assist the group develop the common goal that will drive the project forward;
  2. They allow the group to identify the key intervention areas (i.e. the solutions); and
  3. The workshop’s start the important process of building trust between the participants in your collective impact project.

…and then what?

It’s important to remember that collective impact is a framework and not a step by step action plan, therefore deciding on where to take your project next will be informed by the wisdom of your group and the key people driving it (aka the backbone organisation or people). Your network has already started to form, so now you need to gather and maintain momentum.

All of this will take time and cost money, which can lead to all sorts of challenges around maintaining broad interest from the network, ensuring funders stay engaged, attracting new funders and making sure other priorities (which we all have) don’t distract from the common goal.

It’s all worth it!

It may all sound like a lot of work (it is!) but there is a good reason why you should consider using the collective impact framework despite the time and cost involved.

Imagine if all forms of investment were coordinated to solve the problem; if community groups and businesses were acting collaboratively and sharing information; and if policy started to reflect the common goal. Then all of that hard work would most definitely be worth it!

At the AEGN conference this year, the executive director of the Garfield Foundation, Jennie Curtis, presented us with an example of the power of collective impact – the RE-AMP Network in the United States, which focuses on reducing regional global warming emissions by 80 percent (from 2005 levels) by 2050.

According to Jennie, “Applying a systematic and collaborative approach to complex issues appears to me to be one of the most effective and efficient ways to deal with these ‘wicked’ problems. And from a philanthropic perspective it does all those things that we are supposed to be – leads the way, uses independence to bring together diverse stakeholders, provides a big audacious goal and applies influence and money to achieve long-lasting and game changing outcomes”.

First published on the Australian Environmental Grantmakers blog.

Jan. 24, 2016

 Tags: collective impact, collaboration

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