How to start a collective impact initiative

Step number 1 is to take a leaf from Margaret Mead. Margaret famously and wisely said “A small group of thoughtful people could change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.

Most Collective Impact initiatives start with a small group of people who come together with a desire to try something different. Often they share a high level of frustration about how much effort they and their organisations have expended in pursuit of poor results. Or worse, no change at all. The conversation might sound something like: “Our organisation has been doing its best to address and, if I step back and really look, not much has changed in the last decade”. Which might be followed by: “We’ve been raising and spending more and more money to tackle but more money has not resulted in the change we expected”. With a building sense of urgency, that small group is soon talking about joining forces to tackle the social challenge.

It is important to note here that collaboration is not Collective Impact. Or rather, Collective Impact is so much more than collaboration. When two or more organisations get together to collaborate this usually takes the form of combining strengths and some resources to better deliver existing programs or services. In other words, collaboration starts with examining existing activity and seeking to make improvements, which is inherently inward looking. Conversely, Collective Impact starts with looking outward and asking – what is the change we want to collectively create? In the Collective impact framework , this is called the common agenda.

Many people groan at the thought of participating in another process to craft visions and set shared agendas. Here again, Collective Impact is different in two fundamental ways. The first is who is around the table. The most successful Collective Impact initiatives have understood that if you bring the same players together they will invariably have the same conversation they have always had. That is why those initiatives have intentionally sought to engage those who are not the usual suspects. Some of these people are there because they have great influence – they bring gravitas to the process; others because they have lived experience of the social challenge; and others because they are outliers who have the perspective and ability to shift the conversation towards new thinking and ideas. Interestingly, the most successful Collective Impact initiatives have had people in leadership positions from business or philanthropy who bring with them a disciplined focus on process and results.

Which leads to the next fundamental difference in the Collective Impact approach to setting a common agenda – data. Data is essential to clearly define the nature and size of the social challenge and to narrow the focus of the Collective Impact agenda. At a very minimum, this involves collecting and analysing existing data sets. However, often new data needs to be collected to fill data gaps. Only once the data gathering and analysis is complete can the common agenda and goals be set.

With the diversity of people around the table and the need to collect and analyse data, it is not surprising to learn that setting a common agenda takes time – sometimes up to 18 months. It can be a frustrating experience which challenges people’s motivation and commitment. Good facilitation is essential to help steer the group through this part of the process, as is intentionally creating early wins – even if they are not strategic or highly impactful in nature. But above all, it is important to stay with the process and resist the temptation to jump ahead to planning or implementation until the common agenda is robust, clear and agreed.

With the common agenda set, then in Margaret Mead’s words, our small group of thoughtful people are ready to change the world.

About Kerry Graham and Dawn O'Neil

Social change consultants

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