Collective Impact – A few thoughts

I was born with a pronounced cynicism gene. I think it makes me a good learner, but I do have to remind myself on occasion to keep learning. That’s why I attended Tamarack’s Champions for Change gathering that was all about Collective Impact.

I wasn’t going to go because I didn’t have much time for Collective Impact. I had read the articles; it made sense, but I weaved through the narrative too quickly perhaps and formed a short conclusion that this was a different and also very good piece on a lot of the same stuff that has been going on for long as snow in the artic.

Then one morning – yes it was in the morning – another gene kicked in. The technical name of this gene is fairness. I admitted to myself in the mirror that I hadn’t given time to Collective Impact. I had rapidly built a bias against it. That’s when the clean-shaven version of me in the mirror said, “Be fair, go check it out.”

Okay, that’s not true.

I don’t really have a mirror self that talks to me. That’s crazy. Why would anyone talk back and forth with themselves? Anyway, the truth is I hadn’t given Kania et al a fair shake. So I went to the conference and not only that I did some facilitation, recited a meditation I wrote specifically for the folks attending, and I gave my first workshop ever on Upside Down Thinking, a change tool and process I have been developing. I did all of that because I love being a part of Tamarack but also to immerse myself in the context of the week: collective impact.

So here is where I landed.

I like the framework being shared by the folks at FSG. I see Collective Impact as being born out of the thoughtful convergence of many ideas, initiatives, and successes (not to mention I am sure paying heed to the errors made) to become a clarifying, compelling, and inspiring approach to bettering the lives of people and community through the achievement of large scale change.

I was glad to listen to three representatives from back bone organizations share their stories.  I cannot lie. I felt at times their stories were not unique, but then I realized that’s actually a good thing. There are lots of communities doing this type of large scale impact work. Collective Impact, as a mindset and an approach, can and will help many communities and organizations further along the path.

I am not sure if it is a movement as claimed by some, but it could be and I am leaning toward should be. Here are my reservations (you knew they were coming).  They actually aren’t about the framework itself, but more about how people will use it to guide, if not govern, their collective work. Movements by nature are both inclusive and exclusive. I agree that the model is inclusive, but its practice can’t be solely inclusive.

I worry about funders having big eyes only for collective impact initiatives. In other words, I fear the pendulum could swing so far that only large scale initiatives will be supported.  We need to remember that collective capacity as well as collective wisdom often depend on the ideas and work of outliers, whether an individual or a small group seeking to have what I call niche impact.

Does collective impact rebuke individual or single source impacts? Does my organization have to be a member of a collective impact entity in order to do our part to end poverty?  I am serious. Is membership required?  As a CEO of a human service organization that partners and collaborates but also directly engages people in the changes they wish to make, what exactly do we need to do or change to contribute to community betterment in ways that we are not doing now?

It’s an excellent question and one I take seriously. How does this impact model or framework (what should I call it?) challenge how we operate and should operate?  Not only how of course, but with what quality and inspiration?

Let’s be diligent about not creating an environment or a collective bias that devalues individual effort and promotes the bigger is better mantra that has caused so many hardships in the private and government sectors. Let’s do it when it makes sense, and I suggest it makes sense to do collective impact work considerably  more than we do so now,  and let’s approach this emerging framework with authentic interest and healthy skepticism aimed at furthering our thinking and shared actions about community development and transformation.

Resources from Champions for Change gathering

Upcoming Tamarack learning opportunities

One thought on “Collective Impact – A few thoughts

  1. Mark, Thanks for the great post and the skepticism…Very helpful. I too struggle with your question regarding the implications for individual programs in a collective impact world. One of the many paradoxes of collective impact is it cannot be achieved without successful, effective programs that generate “niche impact.” It is a framework to align a wide variety of programs — niche impacts that are aligned toward a shared goal.

    If funders us the collective impact framework to only fund “large scale initiatives” they are missing the point. The framework is for large scale change, not large-scale programs.


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