Sustainability Ambassadors as a Backbone Organization
What is Collective Impact?
At the intersection between book-learning and community problem-solving we identify mutually reinforcing actions using shared measurement systems based on a common agenda to improve sustainable community conditions.
The collective impact approach has been developed by Seattle-based nonprofit consulting firm FSG, specializing in strategy, evaluation, and research. The notes below have been excerpted from a recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review authored by FSG.
Collective Impact (Cliff Notes)
By John Kania & Mark Kramer
Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2011
The social sector is filled with examples of partnerships, networks, and other types of joint efforts. But collective impact initiatives are distinctly different. Unlike most collaborations, collective impact initiatives involve a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants.
Successful examples of collective impact require many different players to change their behavior in order to solve a complex problem. Large-scale social change comes from better cross-sector coordination rather than from the isolated intervention of individual organizations.
Most funders, faced with the task of choosing a few grantees from many applicants, try to ascertain which organizations make the greatest contribution toward solving a social problem. Grantees, in turn, compete to be chosen by emphasizing how their individual activities produce the greatest effect. Each organization is judged on its own potential to achieve impact, independent of the numerous other organizations that may also influence the issue. And when a grantee is asked to evaluate the impact of its work, every attempt is made to isolate that grantee’s individual influence from all other variables.
In short, the nonprofit sector most frequently operates using an approach that we call isolated impact. It is an approach oriented toward finding and funding a solution embodied within a single organization, combined with the hope that the most effective organizations will grow or replicate to extend their impact more widely.
Social problems arise from the interplay of governmental and commercial activities, not only from the behavior of social sector organizations. As a result, complex problems can be solved only by cross-sector coalitions that engage those outside the nonprofit sector.
The difference between technical problems and adaptive problems. Some social problems are technical in that the problem is well defined, the answer is known in advance, and one or a few organizations have the ability to implement the solution. Examples include funding college scholarships, building a hospital, or installing inventory controls in a food bank. Adaptive problems, by contrast, are complex, the answer is not known, and even if it were, no single entity has the resources or authority to bring about the necessary change.
It requires a systemic approach to social impact that focuses on the relationships between organizations and the progress toward shared objectives. And it requires the creation of a new set of nonprofit management organizations that have the skills and resources to assemble and coordinate the specific elements necessary for collective action to succeed.
Collective impact initiatives have five conditions that together produce true alignment and lead to powerful results: a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support organizations.
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.
Shared Measurement Systems: Agreement on a common agenda is illusory without agreement on the ways success will be measured and reported. Collecting data and measuring results consistently on a short list of indicators at the community level and across all participating organizations not only ensures that all efforts remain aligned, it also enables the participants to hold each other accountable and learn from each other’s successes and failures. Web-based technologies enable systems for reporting performance and measuring outcomes. Looking at results across multiple organizations enables the participants to spot patterns, find solutions, and implement them rapidly.
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. The power of collective action comes not from the sheer number of participants or the uniformity of their efforts, but from the coordination of their differentiated activities through a mutually reinforcing plan of action.
Continuous Communication: Developing trust among nonprofits, corporations, and government agencies is a monumental challenge. Participants need several years of 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. Even the process of creating a common vocabulary takes time, and it is an essential prerequisite to developing shared measurement systems. Most collective impact initiatives hold monthly or even biweekly in-person meetings among the organizations’ CEO-level leaders supported by external facilitators and following a structured agenda.
Backbone Support Organizations: Creating and managing collective impact requires a separate organization and staff with a very specific set of skills to serve as the backbone for the entire initiative. Coordination takes time, and none of the participating organizations has any to spare. The expectation that collaboration can occur without a supporting infrastructure is one of the most frequent reasons why it fails. 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 details needed for the initiative to function smoothly. Simplified, the initial staffing requirements for a backbone organization focus on three roles: project manager, data manager, and facilitator. Backbone organizations embody the principles of adaptive leadership: the ability to focus people’s attention and create a sense of urgency, the skill to apply pressure to stakeholders without overwhelming them, the competence to frame issues in a way that presents opportunities as well as difficulties, and the strength to mediate conflict among stakeholders.
CATALYTIC PHILANTHROPY - The Role of Funders in Collective Impact
Collective impact requires that funders support a long-term process of social change without identifying any particular solution in advance. They must be willing to let grantees steer the work and have the patience to stay with an initiative for years, recognizing that social change can come from the gradual improvement of an entire system over time, not just from a single breakthrough by an individual organization. This requires a fundamental change in how funders see their role, from funding organizations to leading a long-term process of social change.
It is no longer enough to fund an innovative solution created by a single nonprofit or to build that organization’s capacity. Instead, funders must help create and sustain the collective processes, measurement reporting systems, and community leadership that enable cross-sector coalitions to arise and thrive.
Mobilizing and coordinating stakeholders is far messier and slower work than funding a compelling grant request from a single organization. Systemic change, however, ultimately depends on a sustained campaign to increase the capacity and coordination of an entire field.
Funders who want to create large-scale change can be guided by four practices:
- Take responsibility for assembling the elements of a solution
- Create a movement for change
- Include solutions from outside the nonprofit sector
- Use actionable knowledge to influence behavior and improve performance