Gone are the days when non-profit organizations could tackle a social cause on their own. The individual approach to solving issues results in limited or isolated impact. Pre-pandemic, work had already begun in the non-profit sector to work collaboratively to address determinants of health and other complex social issues that no one organization could address on their own. Strong leaders were recognising that the issues at hand were bigger, messier, and spanned many boundaries. Our experience with Covid 19 accelerated the need for a collective response.

So what is Collective Impact?

Collective Impact occurs when a group of organizations come together with intention to address a social issue that is too complicated to be solved by any one group. Seems simple, right? But we know our system has not been set up to do this easily or well. Right now:

  • Funders select individual organizations to received donations
  • There are scarce resources, and these organizations end up competing against each other for funding
  • When evaluation does occur, it isolates the individual organization’s impact
  • It is assumed these individual interventions can be scaled for collective impact
  • When partnerships occur, they most often do not involve the private and public sectors

So what does this mean for designing a collective response?

Kania and Kramer in Collective Impact (Stanford Social Impact Review, Winter 2011) has identified 5 pillars to successfully tackling big social issues.

1. The first is a common agenda. To be effective the partner organizations need to come together to define a shared vision for the future. A shared vision helps everyone involved in the initiative see where it is going. When there are process challenges the vision helps people remember what is at stake.

2. Shared measurement systems. Shared measures ensure all stakeholders have outputs and outcomes that can be measured across each organization. The increase in digital tools has made the ability to do shared measurement easier. An evaluation plan with simple, common measures is the starting point. As is addressing up-front concerns in the context of multi-stakeholder arrangements.

3. Mutually reinforcing activities. Collectively the partners determine what activities will be performed by which organization and how they will be coordinated to benefit the initiative. Each organization may or may not do the same activities. For instance, in the case of a human service initiative each agency may focus on serving specific parts of the population. Or, one organization may lead the shared measurement while others carry out direct service.

4. Continuous communication. Partners need to spend enough time together to develop trust, a common vocabulary and clarity of vision and approach. Spending time together will support trust and reciprocity. Developing agreements around how decisions will be made and differences will be addressed is critical. Over time these ways of working together need to be reinforced.

5. Backbone support. Boundary spanning initiatives need to have backbone support. This means whether the structure be in a separate organization or in a secretariat or other coordinating body the whole initiative is supported through planning, coordination, and administration. Kania and Kramer recommend (2011) recommend this be a separate organization however, depending on the scope of the initiative creative ways of ensuring backboard support should be in place.

What does this mean for today’ leaders?

  • Leaders must, more than ever lead outwardly. This means their focus needs to be on relationships outside of their organizations.
  • Leaders must have foresight. They need to be thinking to the future beyond their tenure at the organization.
  • Leaders must think broader. This requires spanning boundaries beyond one’s usual partners into the private and public sectors and to learn lessons from unusual places.
  • Leaders must focus on collective vs organizational interests.

So how to get started?

Organizations need to be investing in leadership within their own organization. This means creating a learning culture and a culture where leadership is fostered at all levels.

Leaders need to identify their own need for greater backbone support. Does the internal structure need to change to ensure adequate systems, infrastructure and roles are in place to free up their time to face outwards? Governing boards and foundations need to spend time on generative discussions identifying the really big questions.

It can seem daunting to make a move towards leading for collective impact and to keep that focus even in times of change and turmoil. The Osborne Group can help your organization by providing operational, strategic and governance advice. The Osborne Group can provide interim leadership support as you make these changes and support implementation in all of these areas.

Michelle Coombs, Principal Consultant is a strategic leader, educator and change catalyst. Reach Michelle here.