By David Aronstein, BACH Director
All of us have had the experience of working on a solving a problem only to discover that we need more allies, perspectives, resources, and a shared view of the problem.
A collective Impact is an approach to solving a difficult problem a community is having and making changes that will have a lasting and transformational change in how the issue is addressed now and in the future.
At BACH, we think this is an approach that is necessary to have the strongest impact on a range of issues that we call “Social Determinants of Health (SHoH).” These include education, transportation, housing, economic mobility, and other factors that we now have a strong influence on people’s health over the life-span. Over the past decade, there have been numerous Collective Impact initiatives around the country. They range from addressing the student achievement crisis in Cincinnati too, locally, “Let’s Shape up Somerville.” In each of these efforts, people and organizations from lots of different sectors came together to address the issue, knowing that no one organization or even sector could effectively make the changes necessary to achieve their goals.
In order for this approach to be successful, research has shown that there are Five Conditions of Collective Success in producing true alignment between partners and lead to powerful results:
- Common Agenda: Collective impact requires all participants to have a shared vision for change, one that includes a common understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving it through agreed upon actions. We all have had the experience of realizing that not everyone defines the social issue similarly, even though they think they are working on the same issue. Funders need to be part of the solution if they agree to use the goals and strategies that participants have agreed on. Each group brings their resources, skills, and connections to achieving the goal. They don’t all do the same thing but all the efforts are aligned to achieve the overall goal.
- Shared Measurement Systems: It is essential to a collective impact that all participants develop a shared measurement system. Without an agreement on how success will be measured, there really is no common agenda. Participating organizations need to agree to collect data and measure results consistently on a short list of indicators at the community level. This helps ensure that all efforts remain aligned and it helps the participants to hold each other accountable and learn from each other’s successes and failures.
- Mutually Reinforcing Activities: Collective impact initiatives depend on a diverse group of stakeholders working together, not by requiring that all participants do the same thing, but by encouraging each participant to undertake the specific set of activities at which it excels in a way that supports and is coordinated with the actions of others. Their different kinds of efforts need to be mutually reinforcing. Each stakeholder’s work fits into the overarching plan because the multiple causes of social problems are interdependent. Success cannot be achieved by uncoordinated actions between isolated organizations.
- Continuous Communication: We know how hard it is to develop trust among nonprofits, corporations, and government agencies. It takes a long time and 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. It is important to create a common vocabulary and it is an essential prerequisite to developing shared measurement systems. Successful initiatives hold monthly or bi-weekly in-person meetings attended by the leaders of organizations (no skipped meetings or sending someone else). While people may be motivated at the start that participating would bring them more funding, they realized that learning and solving problems together with other passionate people was a reward in and of itself.
- Backbone Support Organizations: A separate organization and staff with a very specific set of skills are needed to create and manage an initiative to serve as the backbone for the entire initiative. This “Backbone Organization” takes responsibility for coordination, communication, and facilitation. Without this supporting infrastructure, many efforts fail. 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 tasks that no participating organization has the time to do.
Collective Impact Initiatives can be successful in Boston, despite the differences between neighborhoods, ethnic and racial groups, and competing interests. It requires commitment, passion, and deep knowledge, three things that we are blessed to have in abundance in Boston. We look forward to taking this approach with you, our partners, as new opportunities for collective impact arise.