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Collective Impact: The Right Conditions for Systems Change

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Photo from Flickr/DubbingHammer

Photo from Flickr/DubbingHammer

Have you heard of Collective Impact ?  If you’re currently involved in any kind of large-scale, community-focused systems change effort, chances are good that you have.  Collective Impact is a compelling framework for real systemic change, made popular after this article was published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2011.  Collective Impact promotes addressing complex social issues (think child obesity or domestic violence or homelessness) through a very prescribed kind of collaboration—including requirements that it be cross-sector, carefully structured and well-supported. If you’re unfamiliar with this framework and want to learn more, I highly recommend reading both their first article and their follow-up article published in 2012.

Collective Impact includes five conditions for success:

  1. A Common Agenda
  2. A Shared Measurement System
  3. Mutually Reinforcing  Activities
  4. Continuous Communication
  5. Backbone Support Organization

I think that the folks who developed the Collective Impact framework nailed it as far as identifying the minimum essential (and challenging!) conditions required for sustainable success.  Not surprisingly, each of the conditions is aligned with the principles and sensibilities of systems thinking.

The first four conditions all have an implicit appreciation of relationships—an orientation to the whole rather than separate pieces of a system.  And each of them encourages that participants take on a systems view.

  1. Developing a common agenda helps different agencies and organizations see themselves as parts of a larger system
  2. Establishing  shared measuring system among organizations allows for apples-to-apples measurements across that system, further reducing ‘silo mentality’.
  3. Mutually reinforcing activities require that the whole group develop a big-picture understanding of the interdependent activities within a system.  This can bring to light not only the service gaps and duplications, but also an understanding of system delays and possibilities of sub-optimizing a particular program—which can lead to helpful conversations about what to do about them.
  4. The continuous communication fuels the all-important need to keep the parts connected through information and feedback.

The fifth and final condition is having a backbone support organization: an entity whose primary responsibility is to make sure that all other conditions are being met.  Backbone organizations are in charge of tracking both ‘The Forest’ and ‘The Trees’: they convene meetings, handle data, and keep communication flowing.  Such a role is usually seen as a luxury, unaffordable for most projects in nonprofit and government sectors.  Having a backbone organization as a required condition represents a shift in mental models about what’s needed for successful, systemic change: a bold and necessary move.

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