The Underpinnings of Collective Impact

Collective Impact is an evidence-based framework for creating and sustaining social change in a community.  It is not a formula.  It is not a program.  It is not even a plan.  This is one of the most important things to understand about Collective Impact: it is a framework or, in the words of Merriam-Webster, it is a “basic conceptional structure.”  To make it be anything more or anything less does injustice to it.

However, it wasn’t just concocted.  It is based upon research which found that successful initiatives have five elements “that together produce true alignment and lead to powerful results.”  For nearly a year I have been researching and studying Collective Impact for myself.  I’m happily finding it aligns very closely with what I’ve learned through my experience in leading and consulting with social change nonprofit organizations for many years.  With all the attention Collective Impact is getting, though, I worry there are many in nonprofit organizations who don’t fully understand and appreciate it is not a quick fix plan or simple solution program.  One of Collective Impacts recent critics even recognizes this when he writes, “Collective impact envisions an even higher standard of collaboration that requires long-term commitment and consensus from all.

A framework can look deceptively simple and easy to implement…until you try to do it.  A framework, or theory, provides the destination but how you get there has to be figured out based upon local conditions.  Working with a framework is like working with a car GPS.  You have to tell the GPS your destination (theory or framework) and then it will give you the turn-by-turn directions (the practical steps).  What is essential is that you know where you want to go.  Without that little bit of information, the GPS can’t tell you where to go and neither can that little voice that berates you when you don’t obey the instructions.  My favorite quote about the function of frameworks is from Kurt Lewin, the founder of social psychology and a pioneer in organizational development, who said: “There is nothing so practicable as a good theory.”  Lewin understood what the folks behind Collective Impact understand – all the quick fix solutions people want, such as “making plans,” “taking steps,” and “implementing programs” is meaningless and fruitless unless you know where you want to go.  Collective Impact provides a direction, but each of us that attempt to use it will have to define the steps we take in order to replicate its five conditions or elements.  Without the framework, though, we wouldn’t really know where we needed to be heading or how we’d know when we arrived.

In my exploration of Collective Impact and my attempts to support nonprofit organizations in using it, I’ve observed there are three other things that it is really important for organizations to understand about the framework.  In this article, I’m going to simply mention them briefly and in future articles I’ll unpack each a little more.

First, it is critical to also understand adaptive leadership theory in order to know how to lead a Collective Impact initiative.

Second, Collective Impact isn’t accomplished with a coalition but through a multi-sector, community-wide partnership that engages others through cooperation, coordination, and, at its highest level, collaboration.

Third, broad community participation, generally created by intensive and continuous community engagement, is vital if community ownership of the social change effort is to emerge.  Broad community participation is also necessary if the initiative is to avoid becoming just another program being done to a community rather than with a community.

More later…

T.W.K.

Copyright 2012 by Thomas W. Klaus

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