This is part three in a series of collaboration articles leading up to the Colorado Collaboration Award to be announced in August 2011. See the end of this article for related links.
We spend a lot of time trying to define collaboration and even more time being concerned about it. That’s why I am so grateful to John Kania and Mark Kramer for defining collaboration in a new way. In their article, “Collective Impact,” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review and in a recent presentation on the article, they used new language to describe groups working together to achieve more and greater results. They define collective impact as “the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem.”
In defining collective impact, Kania and Kramer focus more on the “why” behind collaboration instead of the “how.” Although they are able to share some key conditions that make collective impact work, they shy away from specific formulas or mandates and keep the focus on the common agenda. Best practice in building collaborations from joint programming to mergers encourages organizations to look at the end results first, instead of how to implement a restructuring. This seems like a simple idea and one that makes sense, but as in most decision making, defining the actual decision to be made or strategizing the intended outcomes quickly becomes overshadowed by the practicalities of implementation.
To date in the nonprofit sector, organizations have mostly played as sole actors, defining the specific issues to address and administering programs to meet small, specific objectives. This for Kania and Kramer is isolated impact. It certainly is important work, but not work that for many will make the changes at a scale that will impact larger issues. A noontime feeding program is certainly impactful for the individuals receiving a nutritious meal, but it does little to affect the larger issues behind their hunger – homelessness, unemployment, isolation. Collective impact conversations can bring together a kind of organization with others in the field to discuss better coordination, program adjustments and resource allocation. Denver’s Road Home is one example of this type of project. The goal is to end homelessness in ten years by bringing direct service providers, government resources and the business community together with a specific focus.
If a nonprofit is working to fix an easy problem, it will soon put itself out of work. However, most of the issues that face us today are complex and messy. To find solutions and interventions to complex problems, Kania argues that we need to be adaptive problem solvers, not technical problem solvers. In adaptive mode, the problem is complex and the answers aren’t known in advance. The answers develop through a process and come from within a group or community and evolve over time. In technical mode, the problem is broken down into components and there is a singular solution, an answer, which is implemented. Most nonprofit organizations have one piece of the puzzle, not the complete picture, and working together can bring the result into focus.
In order to achieve collective impact, organizations need to think differently about the work. Of the five conditions that lead to “collective success,” including a common agenda, a shared measurement system, mutually reinforcing activities and continuous communication, Kania says the most important is a backbone support organization. This group makes the collaboration go–coordinating meetings, providing project management and facilitating meetings. This backbone support needs investment, both of resources and time, from the partner organizations and those outside with a vested interest.
This is exemplified in the winner of the Lodestar Foundation’s annual Collaboration Prize. The winner of the $250,000 is the Adoption Coalition of Texas. According to the prize website, “Five well-respected child-serving agencies and the Texas Department of Child Protective Services formed the Adoption Coalition. Agency executives sit on an Advisory Board of Directors and the Austin Community Foundation provides financial accounting, grants management, human resources, and other back-office support.” The backbone organization, along with its partners, has increased the number of annual adoptions from 370 to 700 by focusing on the goal of finding more forever families for children in foster care (www.thecollaborationprize.org).
According to Kania, collective impact is more about credibility than taking credit. Nonprofit organizations and foundations can reconfigure how they approach and communicate this kind of work. It is less about having all the answers and being solely responsible for the outcomes, and more about the greater impact of the work and changing the world. For many of us, this is why we do the work we do–to change things for the better. Nonprofit executives will need to take less credit for individual successes and communicate more about being a team player to make larger change. Foundations will need to look at their funding differently: perhaps by supplying the capital and funding for support organizations and infrastructure rather than funding singular objectives.
Collective impact is complicated, but the rewards can be great. The time to gather stakeholder engagement, establish that common agenda and remain focused when times are hard and the middle of the project feels slow will all be offset with greater results for the community. I, for one, am glad to have this new language to use when talking about collaboration.
by Cindy Willard
For part two of this series, click here.