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Not all collaboration starts at “collective impact”

By Will DeKrey

As we continue to work with collaborative efforts across the country to build shared culture, set bold goals, develop strategy, and establish clear and productive governance structures and measures of success, we have seen that the emergence of the “collective impact” model has led some social sector leaders to overlook the benefits of other forms of collaboration.

For example, we recently had the opportunity to assist Share Our Strength’s Center for Best Practices in examining collaborative efforts that are producing dramatic results around increasing participation in summer meals programs. We examined these efforts by comparing each to an archetypal model of “collective impact,” a process of aligning stakeholders from different sectors around solving a specific social problem together. We evaluated the degree to which each effort reflected the building blocks of strong collective impact efforts, including factors such as a clear definition of success, supporting strategies, measures of success, intentional culture, and more.

Through this research and through fifteen years of work with collaborative community efforts, we have seen that collaboration does not need to mirror the “collective impact” model perfectly in order to produce positive benefits for the participating organizations and/or positive social outcomes.  In fact, many collaborative efforts do not start with the intentionality inherent in collective impact but rather evolve over time, compounding benefits along the way.

Simply bringing community members together on a regular basis to share learnings about working on a particular issue or serving a specific population can result in improved practices across the community. Engaging in collective planning and execution of existing programs can result in better allocation of efforts and resources across the community, reducing duplication and closing service gaps.

For example, in the fall of 2012, the Maryland Partnership to End Childhood Hunger sparked the formation of the Baltimore Partnership to End Childhood Hunger. Those involved in its formation hoped the Baltimore Partnership could cultivate stronger collaboration at the local level, especially around summer meals. The formation of the Baltimore Partnership inspired a series of “roundtable” gatherings focused on identifying gaps in summer meals participation and on opportunities to alleviate those gaps in 2013.

The group analyzed data to narrow in on the most critically underrepresented neighborhoods in summer meals participation. As a result, a number of neighborhood associations dramatically expanded summer meals opportunities within their neighborhoods.  For example, the Park Heights Renaissance neighborhood association collaborated with a new Boys & Girls Club location to expand the number of neighborhood residents who could access meals, and used their existing “Service Providers Network” and “Residents Leadership Council” to raise awareness of summer meals among community residents.

Though this collaborative effort may not yet reflect all of the idealized components of collective impact, the group helped realized a 10% increase in summer meals participation across Baltimore and laid the groundwork for more intentional future collaboration.

As such efforts move toward enhancing the intentionality of their collective strategy and begin to measure their progress toward goals at the community-level, the benefits of collaboration generally grow in tandem. Ultimately, we have seen that the intentionality and accountability required to succeed in collective impact also increases the likelihood that the collaborative effort can realize progress at the magnitude of the social problem(s) it seeks to resolve.

Thus, in working with social sector leaders – nonprofit, philanthropic, or other – we encourage them to recognize and applaud different kinds of collaboration in their communities, while pushing themselves and others toward collective impact. In some cases, the relationships developed through “learning” and “coordination” efforts actually lay the foundation of trust required to succeed in collective impact.

Will DeKrey

About Will DeKrey

As Manager of Networks & Knowledge, Will DeKrey oversees the curation, synthesis and sharing of knowledge within Community Wealth Partners and with external stakeholders in order to advance our collective understanding of how to solve problems at the magnitude they exist. Prior to this role, Will served on the consulting team at Community Wealth Partners. Will was a 1st Place Winner of the National Conference on Citizenship’s 2012 Civic Data Challenge. See Will’s full bio

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