How Collective Impact is helping solve our most pernicious problems: breaking down the isolated agendas of stakeholders and realigning incentives

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Kerry Graham from Collaboration for Impact and Paul Schmitz from the White House Council on Community Solutions share with Victoria Draudins why Collective Impact is working for both place and issue-based complex issues, but results can be slow to reveal.

How do you develop an approach to solve an issue as complex and entrenched as increasing high school-graduation rates? Despite billions in charitable donations and efforts by teachers, administrators and not-for-profit (NFP) organisations, graduation rates in the US had dropped from number one in the world post WWII to 18th among the top 24 industrialised nations in 2011. However, three school districts in Cincinnati began making great inroads into this issue, despite a recession and budget cuts. Their secret was to implement a Collective Impact approach.

Breaking down barriers

Originating in the US, Collective Impact broke into the public sphere when an article by John Kania & Mark Kramer was published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2011.

At its core, Collective Impact aims to bring together a range of relevant actors to tackle entrenched issues. This is a different kind of problem-solving framework that focuses on organising relevant stakeholders (all levels of government, service providers, academics, philanthropists, industry leaders and members of the community) as well as assets and investments, to allow solutions to emerge rather than being known from the start. Through harnessing the collective support of a group of relevant stakeholders, real long-term impacts can be achieved.

Collective Impact aims to move away from a siloed, program-based approach where a single entity, such as a welfare agency, is supposed to take on all responsibility and have all the answers for an issue. This makes sense given that wide-scale issues are driven by many factors and show up in multiple parts of a system. According to Kerry Graham, Director of Collaboration for Impact in Australia, the main issue the initiative has is to tackle the breaking down of the ‘isolated agendas’ of stakeholders. For example, ‘Not for profits are interested in securing funding, and governments have their own priorities. We aim to get away from silos to a shared approach to funding, accountability and governance.’

Tackling issues from the federal to local level

In addition to the US, this approach is gaining popularity in Canada and Australia. Graham estimates that this framework is being used in Australia to solve up to 140 complex issues, both place- and issue-based.

The Collective Impact approach is being used by federal and state governments in Queensland, NSW and Victoria to solve a range of issues, including the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet’s $14.4 million ‘Empowered Communities’ initiative, which facilitates new ways for Indigenous communities to work with governments to set priorities and improve services. It is also being used in an initiative by the Department of Social Services, with further investment from partnering state governments to ensure effective collaboration between communities, governments, service providers and investors in tackling disadvantages in the communities. Up to $35 million in Commonwealth funding over five years has been set aside to help 10 communities, starting off with Logan in Queensland and Bourke in New South Wales.

The elements of collective impact

Over time, five main elements of Collective Impact have been defined as follows:

  • A common agenda: stakeholders have a common understanding of the issues they’re trying to address and a shared vision of actions to create change.
  • Continuous communication: a constant flow of communication to build trust among stakeholders, such as through regular meetings between leaders over time.
  • Backbone support: to ensure dedicated staff and resources for carrying out six functions: 1) overseeing the strategic direction, 2) facilitating communication, 3) monitoring data collection and analysis, 4) managing funding, 5) coordinating community outreach, and 6) providing communications.
  • Mutually reinforcing activities: to ensure that even while stakeholders engage in different activities, it takes place in a coordinated and complimentary fashion that feeds into an overarching plan of action.
  • Shared measurement: stakeholders develop a set of shared indicators to measure progress and provide a feedback loop for course-correction during a project. The backbone support organisation plays a key role in enabling shared measurement, potentially training, facilitating, collating or reviewing data or data collection methods. This is especially important given that outcomes aren’t defined.

Lessons from community-led action in the US

Last year, Paul Schmitz, a US-based expert focusing on a community — or citizen-led — approach to Collective Impact (as opposed to government or NFP) and who had been appointed by President Obama to The White House Council on Community Solutions, visited Australia to hold workshops, including in Canberra and the Queensland town of Rockhampton. For Schmitz, Collective Impact was important for helping him think outside the box, ‘not just how to roll out a new program, but how to approach the community as an organisation of change.’

For example, Milwaukee had the worst fourth-grade reading scores in the country, with disadvantaged children falling behind in as little as 10 weeks. Under a Collective Impact approach, stakeholders asked themselves who had relationships with the children they were trying to target, and how could they harness this. As part of this approach, a series of libraries partnered with a chain of barber shops to get books to kids while offering them back-to-school haircuts.

Schmitz believes that central to this approach should be the role of the community. In other words, to think about how intended beneficiaries, as well as their families and neighbours, can actively participate in the process.

One key difference Schmitz observed in the way Collective Impact is applied in Australia compared to the US is that the governments play much larger roles in Australia than the US and are responsible for building incentives. However, while government is an important stakeholder, it can be a blocker to solving issues if care is not taken. Governments tend to operate in silos and segment issues, which can de-incentivise collaboration. Collective Impact tackles this approach by realigning departmental incentives and KPIs to try to ensure correct outcomes.

Further, relying on multiple parties is essential for slow-burn problems like those addressed in Collective Impact. After all, problems may take years of intervention and reinforcement before meaningful results are generated, and which can be at odds with high turnovers in the NFP space and the short-term outlook governments tend to work towards. Therefore, if there’s a change in government or an issue simply falls out of vogue and funding dries up, the community can keep providing the long-term support required to create change.

While it is still establishing itself in the mainstream, Collective Impact is finding a range of applications in Australia and overseas to tackle some of our most pernicious problems.

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