Even the best individual efforts of leaders and organizations can’t stack up against today’s complex and interconnected problems. They are collaborating to build a new civic infrastructure to advance their shared objectives. It’s called collective impact and it’s a growing trend across the country.
A diverse group of local leaders — private, public, philanthropic, and nonprofit — fed up with the dysfunction around them, come together to challenge conventional wisdom and fix problems long written off as unsolvable, such as poverty, unemployment, and a failing education system. More often than not, they lack the formal authority to solve the problem and don’t have an obvious ‘plug and play’ solution. In Cleveland, for example, long-time rival universities and hospitals have come together to harness their collective billions to buy, hire, and research in order to reshape the economic future of the region and help those who have been hardest hit by the economic downturn. In Atlanta — against all local custom and odds — ten counties and the business community came together to promote an historic $8 billion bond issuance and regional tax increase to address the fact that people who need jobs can’t get them.
While collaboration is certainly not a foreign concept, what we’re seeing around the country is the coming together of non-traditional partners, and a willingness to embrace new ways of working together. And, this movement is yielding promising results. As the president and CEO of a 20-year old collaborative of 22 of the world’s largest foundations and financial institutions, I’d like to offer five lessons for driving large-scale social change through collaboration:
- Clearly define what you can do together: As Dana O’Donovan of the Monitor Institute hasnoted, many organizations find collaboration to be messy and time consuming. From the very beginning, you must develop clarity of purpose and articulate, “What can we do together that we could not do alone?” Often, this means thinking beyond individual projects to whole solutions and big, bold ideas. For example, Corridors of Opportunity, an initiative in the Minneapolis-St. Paul region, and part of our five-city Integration Initiative, has brought together a diverse group of policymakers, corporations, foundations, and community organizations to integrate efforts around transit planning and engineering, land use, affordable housing, workforce development, and economic development — all of which had been disconnected. Focusing on the region’s growing transit system, the effort aims to accomplish what none of the groups could achieve on their own — expanding access to jobs and transit service for the region as a whole, with particular focus on unlocking employment opportunities for low-income people.
- Transcend parochialism: Even the most well intended collaboration is often crippled by parochialism. Individual organizations earmark their participation and resources for activities that perfectly align with their own work or they use the collaboration platform as a way to get other participants to fund their own priorities. While not foolproof, we’ve found that senior level participation can be an effective antidote to this problem. Senior leaders often have a “balcony view” of the core issue, understanding the needs of the field and the inherent limitations of their own organization’s approach. The most effective of these leaders will put aside their organization’s short-term interests in pursuit of the goals of the group. For example, in the SF Hope initiative, a collaboration to battle poverty for the city’s most vulnerable citizens, the Mayor of San Francisco, the CEO of the San Francisco Foundation, the Superintendent of the San Francisco public schools, the president of the Chamber of Commerce, and the publisher of the San Francisco Business Times are all active participants. They don’t send lower-level staff that may be unable to transcend politics and self-interest.
- Adapt to data: The complex, multidisciplinary problems that many collaborative projects tackle do not have easy fixes. These challenges require continuous learning and innovation and the use of real-time data to help participants understand what is and isn’t working. Adjustments must be made on the fly. For example, multi-sector partnerships based on the Strive Together model have formed in more than two dozen cities to reengineer educational systems that are failing kids, from cradle to career. Unlike previous efforts, they have set specific goals along this entire continuum, and are committed to data-informed decision making. This model requires partners to continuously track and publish progress and results; and to collectively reflect on, re-evaluate, and refine their work. Indeed, the Striving Together report card serves as a catalyst for discussion in communities about the current state of education. By reviewing trends over time, partners can highlight where they are having the greatest impact and where they may need to focus more energy.
- Feed the field: You have an obligation to share what you learn — both the results and the methods for achieving them. Living Cities has long understood the value that our member institutions get by learning and working together. However, it’s only in the last few years that we’ve realized — with the growth of social media and ubiquity of the internet — these same benefits can be extended at little cost to all public, private, and nonprofit actors who care about the issues that we are tackling. They want real-time information — from early hunches to emerging approaches — that they can put into practice immediately. Give it to them.
- Support the backbone: In our experience, progress is best achieved when a “backbone organization,” keeps the group’s work moving forward. Staff at these organizations ensure that work is completed between meetings, track data, enable adaptation, disseminate knowledge, and build buy-in and ownership from all participants. Living Cities’ staff plays this role in our collaborative but we’ve also seen others such as the local Integration Initiative and Strive Network fill this role by hiring full-time staff whose ‘day job’ is to continuously support, nurture, and feed the collaborative. We firmly believe that this greatly increases chances of success.
We are bombarded daily with evidence of our nation’s inability to solve mounting problems like failing education systems and growing inequality. The rapid growth of collective impact and the building of new civic infrastructures around the country are the most promising approaches to tackle these issues.
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