Rereading “Collective Impact”: Three Lessons

One of the many lessons I’ve learned since the first “Collective Impact” article by John Kania and Mark Kramer disrupted my life three years ago is that all collaborations go through cycles. And asLiz Weaver, vice president of the Tamarack Institute, teaches, it takes about three to five years to go through the full collaboration cycle. To sustain the collaboration beyond the first journey through the cycle requires that participants constantly reassess the rationale and value proposition of the collaboration—to learn and affirm why they are committed to working with others.

So three years into my personal collective impact journey—during which I’ve facilitated collaborations, attended and presented at workshops, advocated as both a funder and a practitioner, read tomes on complexity and shaping a project with FSG—I wasn’t surprised when I reached the point where I needed to go back to the beginning to keep moving forward.

Although I had returned to the original article (and all subsequent articles on the topic) many times for insight, I didn’t reread the original in its entirety until recently. Rereading it provided me with a few insights that I had lost over the years, including:

1. This is really long-term work. “Participants need several years of regular meetings to build up enough experience with each other to recognize and appreciate the common motivation behind their different efforts,” write Kania and Kramer.

We live in an age where instant gratification isn’t nearly fast enough. Who is willing to work “several years” to develop the trusted relationships and capacity required to achieve collective impact? How do we create a several-year view when so many funders consider three years long-term?

The disparity between time required and patience available is one reason why collaboration for collective impact is so elusive.

2. Collaboration requires capacity.  The authors write: “The expectation that collaboration can occur without a supporting infrastructure is one of the most frequent reasons why it fails. The backbone organization requires a dedicated staff separate from the participating organizations … Collective impact also requires a highly structured process that leads to effective decision making.”

Very few people like process. We enjoy doing. Creating the capacity to facilitate a process that empowers cross-sector collaboration is painful and tedious. Getting something done, however—now that’s exciting and fun. Selling funders, organizations, and leaders on the value of creating capacity for process is so tough that we are often inclined to try to figure out how to collaborate without it. That’s a mistake.

3. Collective impact requires funders to shift their perspective. “It is no longer enough to fund an innovative solution created by a single nonprofit or to build that organization’s capacity. Instead, funders must help create and sustain the collective processes, measurement reporting systems, and community leadership that enable cross-sector coalitions to arise and thrive,” say Kania and Kramer.

Shifting to a collective impact framework requires everyone within the complex system to change. Those with the least incentive to change are the funders—private, public, and philanthropic. One funder friend of mine who is a huge champion of collective impact shared with me how she dismissed a recent grant application, because it didn’t fit the “normal” framework. Two of her colleagues pointed out to her that the grantee was pursuing a fresh, collective approach. Although embarrassed by her initial response, she shares this story to illustrate how hard it is for funders to make the switch to collective impact stick.

Ken Thompson (no relation) of the Gates Foundation referenced this point in a recent post, noting that funders “don’t tend to change until we have to.” But what makes a funder “have to” change? In systems—whether natural or organizational—competition drives change. Broadly speaking, funders don’t operate in a competitive space. Funders change when they want to change. Persuading them to change was one of the objectives of the original article, and it is at the core of the emerging Collective Impact Forum, formed by FSG and the Aspen Institute. It also is one of the most challenging hurdles to achieving collective impact.

Collective impact remains more of an aspiration than an accomplishment for most of us. As I aspire to sustain more positive change in 2014, I found that the simple act of rereading the original article was both inspiring and informative. I encourage others to do the same and I intend to reread it regularly to remind myself that this is indeed long-term, rigorous work requiring that all of us behave very differently.