When Collective Impact Isn’t – Part 1

When is a community change movement using the Collective Impact framework and when is it using the framework in name only but doing “business as usual?”  This was a hot topic at the Champions for Change meeting of backbone organization leaders in Cincinnati on March 6-8 and appropriately so given the growing attention of funders.  Even in the field that I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years (teen pregnancy prevention and adolescent sexual health) there have been increasing rumors of key funders looking closely at Collective Impact as a model framework for creating social change at the community and state level.  The faculty at Champions for Change (John Kania and Fay Hanleybrown of FSG, Paul Born and Liz Weaver of Tamarack, and various members of the Strive Partnership) and participants wrestled with this question.

A general consensus seemed to emerge around three ideas in relationship to the question.

  1. There was wide-spread agreement among participants that FSG had successfully named the approach to community work the participants had in common.  By giving it the name “Collective Impact” it offered the first words of a new language that everyone in the room could begin to speak in order to communicate with one another.
  2. Explaining what Collective Impact is to others and how it is different is not easy.
  3. It may be easiest to differentiate between what is and is not Collective Impact by identifying what it is not.

I agree with my colleagues at Champions for Change that FSG seems to have given us new language to describe a different approach.  I also do agree that it isn’t easy to explain Collective Impact.  I’ve been trying to do so with colleagues for more than a year and I’ve made only incremental progress.  Only recently did the lights begin to go on for some of my closest colleagues as they read and re-read the FSG articles and the concept papers I’ve written for our work.  On the last point, though, I’m not yet sure I agree that it is easiest to explain Collective Impact by focusing on what it is not.

I do think a key to understanding the difference between Collective Impact and business as usual (e.g., coalitions, collaborations driven by a single organization or funder, etc.) is that the how of Collective Impact is at least, if not more, important than the what.  The what of Collective Impact is easily summarized into its five conditions: shared agenda, shared measures, mutually supportive activities, continuous communication, and an infrastructure (backbone organization) to coordinate and lead the work.  It was correctly observed by the Champions for Change participants and faculty that some (maybe even many?) social change initiatives have used these five as a checklist to assess the activities of their existing initiative and, if they can check off each of the five boxes, TA-DA!, they are newly christened as a Collective Impact initiative.

What is missed, though, is how the initiative does its work.  I argue this is really the essence of a Collective Impact initiative and what sets it apart from all others.  The how of Collective Impact might be described in any one of these ideas:  process, organic, emerging, evolutionary, or becoming.  And all of these words are bound to drive the Type A pragmatists among us, who love definitive answers, absolutely nuts!  In a Collective Impact initiative the most frequently heard answer to any question about solutions, next steps, plans, and all those other things the pragmatist desires is simply, “It depends.”  This is because context is critical to how Collective Impact works.  The context, defined by the community setting, the nature of the issue to be addressed, the key stakeholders at the table, the availability of resources, etc., etc., will inform the how and the how will always trump the what in a successful Collective Impact social change initiative.

This may seem a radical idea and yet it is not at all.  Those familiar with complexity theory and organizations or complex adaptive systems know it is just how things really work in the world.  Complexity theory simply says organizations or structures exist within environments that are constantly changing and are terribly uncertain.  Therefore, in order to survive and even thrive, organizations have to be constantly adapting to the environment or context in which it works.  To do this they become self-organizing, learning organizations that can quickly and fluidly change as needed.

If you’ve ever walked through an amusement park “fun house” you know all about a complex adaptive system.  Walking through it while the floors are tipping, tilting, and moving back and forth is not so easy.  The key to navigating a fun house floor is to stay relaxed and to “go with the flow” of the floor and learn to adapt quickly to the wildly moving floors.  If you stay stiff and try to walk straight and inflexibly, you’ll probably end up on your keester cursing the sadist that named the thing a “fun house.”

In my opinion, the how of Collective Impact is what distinguishes it from business as usual.  In Part 2 I’ll suggest several tell-tale signs that a “Collective Impact” initiative really isn’t.

More later…


Copyright 2013 by Thomas W. Klaus

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