Collective Impact

In previous blogs this year, I’ve talked about the power of collaboration and partnerships, and the need to be able to communicate a convincing ‘Theory of Change’.  This month, I want to talk about Collective Impact.

The phrase Collective Impact was coined in 2011 in an article which presented a critique of the ways in which to tackle large-scale social problems; not least recognising the enormity of the task of tackling hugely complex and entwined problems, such as fixing educational systems, or tackling obesity[1].

These fundamental, ‘systems based’ issues exist and permeate through all levels of society.  They are not contained to national policy, nor can they only exist at a localised community level.  The enormity of attempting to tackle the task of, say obesity, gives rise to producing the most complex of policy and practice interventions.  Just witness the plethora of obesity reports coming out over the last few years.  A common cry of ‘Something must be done’, and a mammoth list of separate things that must be done.  There are constant issues around governance, leadership, ownership – at national and local levels.  There is tension around who should be responsible for setting priorities and then delivering (government, corporates, NGO sectors, the individual citizen.)

The article further suggested that any collective approach, undertaken by what the authors call ‘a group of actors from different sectors’ needs to be underpinned with five clear ‘conditions of success’.

Collective Impact, both as a term and a defined approach, is beginning to gain traction in the UK, especially with policy think tanks and funders grappling with how to deliver complex, systems based, approaches.  Organisations such as the Royal Society of Arts, Nesta and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation have recently offered their takes on how Collective Impact could work in the UK.  Thankfully, the five conditions of success haven’t been challenged, though principles of practice and the complexity of current national, regional and local governance models give rise to concerns as to how successful Collective Impact can ever be as the best game in town.  A fundamental challenge is how to balance the delivery of a collective impact approach at a local level, yet engage with the context for national policy change.

So, let’s give the five conditions of success a quick run through.  As national Director for the School Food Plan from 2013-2016, I was fortunate to deliver the multi stakeholder (over 50 organisations), multi layered and multiple intervention programme using a Collective Impact approach, so I’ll use that reference point when explaining the five.

One: A Common Agenda:  At the School Food Plan (SFP for short), we called this our shared vision.  At its most simple, it can be a rallying cry, something that everyone gets behind.  Clarity on definitions.  Clarity on the aims and outcomes.  For the SFP it meant everyone physically signing up to the 17 agreed actions that would collectively transform what children ate in school and how they learned about food.

Two: Shared Measurement System: Everyone being clear on how to measure and then report on success.  Whether it’s short term input or output measures, or outcome and impact data, it is fundamental that all ‘actors’ use and contribute to a shared measurement system.  Of course, the advancement of technology and big data makes this both potentially easier yet much more daunting in scale.  For the SFP we agreed to coalesce around five data sets, with the strong moniker of ‘What gets measured gets done’.

Three: Mutually Reinforcing Activities: Everyone understanding the particular roles and contributions that they are going to play, how they ‘fit in’ to the big picture.  This not only means having a good, clear plan; it’s also about being transparent and clear who is doing what, when, and the dependencies and co-dependencies that exist.  For the SFP, each of the 17 actions had a clear owner and then list of all participants.

Four: Continuous Communications: Transparent, positive, clear communications.  Fundamental to collective impact success is the building of trust and confidence around being able to communicate clearly. As Director of the SFP, nearly all my time was taken up with supporting a continuous communication process, looking for any potential broken lines of communication, making sure that all actors felt their voices were being heard and appropriately understood.

Five: Backbone Support Organisation: Having a separate backbone administration keeping it all together.  As Director of the SFP, I oversaw a small but fundamental office that served to link and connect all the actors, be it different government departments, public, NGO and corporate sector organisations.  It is crucial that the administration is seen as fair and impartial and non-partisan.

For me, the clarity and simplicity of the five conditions of Collective Impact was mutually self-reinforcing.  It helped all the different SFP actors, at national and local level, galvanise together around a vision, a plan, measurement and tone of voice.  For a while, it worked brilliantly.

And then it comes apart.  The moment one of the main actors is not able to fully sign up to any of the five conditions, the whole Collective Impact approach is at danger of unravelling.  For the SFP, it was a fundamental difference between government and the NGOs in the measurement criteria, and the withdrawal of funding for the backbone office.  On reflection, the approach was too top-down, and the relative short-termism for the Programme meant that relationships, trust and respect was fragile.

In the UK we have big, thorny, complex issues to address.  All of us have a part to play.  The five condition of Collective Impact may (to some) be naively simplistic, but may well be the fundamental framework we need to adopt.

[1] John Kania and Mark Kramer Stanford Social Innovation Review 2011

Myles Bremner