Homelessness needs a Collective Impact approach

How can we leverage a better return on the more than $165 billion invested in social care in Australia?

This week the 2011 Census homelessness numbers were released by the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). The results are discouraging and disheartening.  Despite a national strategy, agreed targets, an increase in federal and state spending, and the significant effort of many social sector organisations, homelessness has risen by 8% over the past 5 years.

Homelessness is not an easy social problem to solve.  We know it is not just the result of too few houses, but rather the complex interplay of domestic violence, unemployment, mental illness, family breakdown and drug and alcohol abuse. In short, it is a failure of many systems that results in this type of social disadvantage.

It is our view that we will not see the full return on the investment made by government (and others) in social care until we invest in backbone organisations whose sole responsibility is to ensure that a ‘Collective Impact’ approach is taken to tackling our most entrenched social issues, like homelessness.  Backbone organisations are a key element of the ‘Collective Impact’ framework espoused by Mark Kramer and John Kania in thier seminal article published in the Winter 2011 edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review.   These types of organisations are funded to ensure all organisations working to alleviate a social problem are working towards the same goals, collecting and sharing common data, and aligning their activities in a coordinated way.  Backbone organisations are accountable for the effectiveness of the collective effort – they facilitate improved outcomes for individuals and communities by helping a better functioning system to develop.

A compelling example of this type of social change is the Strive Partnership in Greater Cincinnati, USA.  The purpose of the Strive Partnership is to create better education outcomes for students in communities experiencing entrenched disadvantage.  The Partnership comprises leaders from the education, nonprofit, community, civic, and philanthropic sectors working together, across sectors, and along the educational continuum, to drive better results in education from ‘cradle to career’. The work of the Partnership is driven by eight critical outcomes: kindergarten readiness, 4th grade reading proficiency, 8th grade math proficiency, high school graduation rates and scores, and post secondary enrollment, retention and completion.  The results have demonstrated the success of this Collective Impact initiative. After 4 years, 81% of all outcome measure are trending in the right direction.   The backbone organisation that facilitates the Strive Partnership has a budget of $1.5mill and employs 7 staff.  However, in fulfilling their backbone function, they influence and align the collective $7billion budget of the Partnership to achieve the type and magnitude of change that has not been seen before in that community.

We believe that getting fragmented and siloed organisations to function as an effective system is the new frontier in social change and the key to reaping greater return on our existing investments.  Yet it is rare for the required collaboration or systems thinking and design to be funded and supported.  There have, of course, been examples of this happening in small pockets in Australia.  But we argue that a major policy shift is needed whereby funders –  government and philanthropic – invest in backbone organisations that support collective impact efforts. Without this deliberate policy change, Australia is unlikely to experience the type and scale of social change seen in Greater Cincinnati.  What we will see are more headlines like the ones we saw yesterday on homelessness.

All of us are made poorer by the poor performance of major social initiatives and investments.  And that just doesn’t make good business sense does it?


This is the second article in a series we are writing for ProBono Australia .

About Kerry Graham and Dawn O'Neil

Social change consultants

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