In search of elusive collective impact

This summer, I spent a lot of my time working on a sort of landscape assessment of the advocacy capacity–individually and collectively–of organizations working to combat obesity and support healthy eating and active living in the Kansas City area.

It was a tremendously exciting project, for me–a chance to learn more about work happening in an area that I care about but have relatively little experience in, and an opportunity to try out some of the tools I’ve been reading about, like a new network mapping system and a different method of analyzing coalition advocacy capacity.

For me, that passes for absolutely thrilling. Seriously.

I may have some other insights from this work to share in the future, but, for today, I want to highlight what was an unexpected development:

Everyone was talking about collective impact.

OK, so not technically everyone.

But, where I was expecting to have to prod folks into thinking, not about what their own capacity looks like or how they leverage that towards policy change, but, instead, how their capacity fits with that of others in the field, for greatest combined impact…

They were already there.

Several informants (I interviewed almost 40 people working in the field) talked about things like the need for shared metrics and a common vision, the importance of a network mentality so that individual organizations’ capacities were truly available to others, and the need for ‘backbone’ organizations that can catalyze a field approach.

They didn’t have the answers, certainly. It’s one thing to know that we need complementary skills and strategies AND the will to use them collaboratively, and another thing to really make that happen.

But they’re thinking about it. And talking about it.

And hoping for help–from foundations (who can fund in ways that encourage consideration of combined contribution, rather than individual attribution), from consultants (who can help them to map the capacities of others and focus on their best ‘niche’ in the network), and from each other (because impact is, after all, what we should all be in this business for).

I can’t definitely prove that this attention to collective impact comes from this Stanford Social Innovation Review article, although more than one informant mentioned it (and one even emailed it to me after we spoke).

It’s definitely worth reading, though, if you haven’t.

And I’d love to hear from you, today.

First, what about collective impact? What would it look like, in the field where you work? What would it take to get there?

And, second, has there been an article that has really ‘echoed’ where you work? A particular way of thinking about organizational change, or capacity, or advocacy, or, really, anything, that has shaped how you and your colleagues see what you do, and what you need to do differently? I’d love to see it.

We mostly face complex problems that have multiple potential intervention points, in this world.

It seems that most of the quick ‘technical’ fixes already have been. Fixed, that is.

So it’s going to take thinking, and working, collectively, in order to get to the scale where we can make a difference.


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