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Guest blog: Getting Started with Collective Impact

In this guest blog, Nina Jais and Flynn Lund from FSG share five lessons they have learnt from the field on their journey towards collective impact.

Getting Started with Collective Impact: Lessons from the Field

Collective impact brings people together, in a structured way, to create large-scale social change. The five elements of collective impact (see box) seem quite simple, yet, when combined with the Principles of Practice, they can be exceedingly powerful in their impact.

 

For instance, Tackling Youth Substance Abuse is a successful collective impact initiative that reduced opioid overdose fatalities by 32% in just two years on Staten Island, New York. As far away as Victoria, Australia, Go Goldfields, funded by the ten20 Foundation, has successfully reduced the proportion of primary school children requiring speech pathology interventions from roughly 40% to 27% in two years (see also, “Collective Impact: A New Twist on an Old English Art”, Trust & Foundation News, Summer 2016). In Europe, we are seeing growing interest and experimentation with the collective impact approach to tackle a wide range of societal challenges, from tackling youth unemployment, to improving mental health, and reducing chronic illness such as diabetes.

It is important to note that collective impact is not a magic formula for social change, but rather is intended to offer guidance for how to bring people together to create change under the right circumstances. Collective impact requires customization for each unique social challenge and local context. For those that are interested in exploring whether collective impact is relevant for their context and challenges, we have laid out five lessons from the field that we have found to be particularly important at the beginning of each collective impact journey:

  1. Assess collective impact appropriateness: Is it the right approach to the social issue/problem you seek to tackle?
    Creating social change at scale is certainly not easy. Yet, not every problem requires multi-stakeholder collective impact solutions – only protracted systemic problems do. Sometimes a relatively simple program is more than sufficient to resolve a challenge. However, when striving to solve complex problems, which involve many stakeholders, multiple interconnected systems and processes, no single actor can solve the problem alone. The problem may be the result of gaps and silos in the system, coordination among actors may be weak or absent, and/or there might be a need for new policies, innovation or solutions. Reflecting on the nature of the challenge you seek to address, you may find that taking a collective impact approach may be appropriate if the following hold true:
    • Shifting awareness, coordination, practices, policies, funding flows, public will, or social norms is needed to create lasting change.
    • Multiple sectors (i.e., government, private, nonprofit, community, foundation sector) need to work together to address the issue.
    • The issue impacts a significant part of the population and does so in varied geographies, and scale is required.
  2. Make sure the context is ready for collective impact: Are the right conditions in-place?
    In studying and working with collective impact initiatives, we have observed that initiatives’ success is often dependent on having a set of pre-conditions in place:
    • The presence of influential and trusted champions who can engage cross-sector actors for collective impact
    • A history of collaboration and existing initiatives to build on in the community
    • Sufficient resources to support the planning process and collective impact infrastructure (at least for 12 months)
    • The urgency to address the issue in new and different ways
    • A graphical outline of questions on whether collective impact is the right approach and whether you are ready for it, can be found here: Readiness Assessment Tool.
  3. Cultivate a mindset shift: Are you and your partners open to work in new ways?
    All too often, isolated, program based activity is unintentionally perpetuated in the social sector. Current ways of working and funding often seek the “best” organization that has the “best” program, and when successful, credit is claimed rather than shared. This can perpetuate ‘turf-wars’ between resource-limited nonprofits, and unhealthy and unconstructive hording of knowledge, credit, and funding. Collective impact requires a fundamentally different approach to creating change. Collective impact demands a shift from current mindsets to new ways of thinking, for example:
    • From a focus on evidence to a focus on evidence and relationships
    • From silver bullet solutions to a holistic, multi-angle approach
    • From credit attribution to credit contribution

      Participants of collective impact initiatives have found it helpful to reflect on how to cultivate such mindset shifts internally within their own organizations, as well as how to cultivate and encourage these shifts together with partners. Such deep and shared reflection helps to foster collective creativity and to build trust – the foundations for each collective impact effort (See also, “Essential Mindset Shifts for Collective Impact”).    
  4. Strive for authenticity: Can you commit to shifting the balance of power and empower ‘new’ voices from the community?
    Inequities along the lines of gender, class, race, sexual orientation, and other background characteristics shape the complex problems that collective impact initiatives aspire to change, from the health to economic related, from educational to environmental. Without intentional and rigorous attention to persistent inequities, our initiatives risk ineffectiveness, irrelevance, and improvements that cannot be sustained (see also “Equity Resources” on the Collective Impact Forum). One way of surfacing and addressing these inequities is through meaningful inclusion of the community you seek to serve (“community” refers to intended beneficiaries and their families, friends, neighbors, and the leaders of small community-based or faith-based groups who work most closely with them in the place they live). Within each community lies a deep understanding of the problems through the eyes of those with lived experience. Community members hold the assets, energy, and deep local knowledge that any sustainable solution relies on (See also “Community Engagement Toolkit”).  Practitioners report that only one thing is worse than not involving the community at all: Claiming to have authentically engaged members of the community when in fact you did not. It is critical to be very clear about your community engagement purpose, pick an approach to engagement that aligns with that purpose, and be authentic in how you articulate the degree of community engagement you seek.
     
  5. Engage government in strong welfare states: What is your plan to make the collective impact initiative a celebrated local welfare complement?
    In places where the public sector and government play a central role, which is common across many European countries, it is important to consider when and how to involve these agencies, and also why they are needed. Depending on the local context, government may be responsible for planning and delivering services that need to change, are the primary funder of services, are gate-keepers to necessary data or stakeholders, and/or have the power to cultivate a policy environment conducive to collective impact. We have seen collective impact initiatives stalled due to the lack of buy-in from national and local governments as the effort was seen as a challenge to the ability of government to fulfil its role of providing comprehensive services, for example. To advance your collective impact initiative you may first need to convincingly make the case for why collective impact is important: shifting how resources are used to fund more of what works. Private funders and philanthropists are very often the pioneers that can innovate and demonstrate through nonpublic funds the benefit of collective impact before financing is provided by government, yet government should be at the table with all other sectors from the beginning (See “How Public Policy Can Support Collective Impact” for further thinking on the enabling role of government).
     

Nina Jais and Flynn Lund
FSG

You can find many more resources on the collective impact process, toolkits and case studies on the Collective Impact Forum. If you have further questions, please reach out to FSG. Email: Flynn.Lund@fsg.org. 

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