Collective Impact beyond the comfort zone

Successful collective impact initiatives demand that we go beyond levels of comfort, past individual organisational agendas and towards an approach that emphasises common goals, common measures and mutually reinforcing activities, say Australian social change advocates Dawn O’Neil AM and Kerry Graham.

“Working at the edge of our competence and at the height of being uncomfortable,” is what Dr Michael McAfee says is the place we need to be to do the big work of Collective Impact.

Over the past few weeks we have become aware of a growing number of emerging Collective Impact initiatives emerging throughout Australia. We wrote the last blog post about the “Together SA” cross-sectoral collaboration to mobilise a number of communities across South Australia in creating systems-wide change.

Their ambitious claim of creating large scale improvements on complex social issues and increasing sustainable participation and capacity within communities is not all that new. But what is new is the explicit call to participants to move beyond individual organisational agendas and activities to a collective approach that emphasises common goals, common measures and mutually reinforcing activities to achieve outcomes.

When they launched this initiative in Adelaide last month they brought out from the United States Dr Michael McAfee Director of Promise Neighbourhoods Institute in the United States.

He had some compelling and challenging words for the SA community and anyone wanting to embark on this work. In particular, he said that for us to do this work we must be prepared that it will require courageous leadership and many years of dedicated work. He reiterated many times that we need to ‘work at the edge of our competence and at the height of being uncomfortable’ and if we genuinely want to see change occur it will be in us and the way we work as service providers. So the personal challenge and change in mindsets and attitudes is key.

I asked Dr McAfee how he got started in doing this work.

“I was working for the government and we gave out significant funds into communities yet we were often the most irrelevant in the community. I became quite disillusioned with the impact we were able to have, just giving out grants that didn’t really make a difference. So I had to decide what to do, do I stay and keep being disillusioned or step out of my comfort zone and try to do more, and really try to improve developmental outcomes for disadvantaged children in America.”

“I look at all of our work as developmental. We are only able to talk about Collective Impact like we can today because of the work that has been done in the past. It’s not new – it’s built on the systems literature and collaborative work that has been done over the past 30-40 years. It just happens to be our time and we have to step up to go to the next level.”

“We must build on the knowledge base of years of community development – this has been crucial in building a base to work from. But we know now that so much of this work has been in isolated efforts and now more is needed. Of course this is how innovation and growth occurs – it always builds on previous learning and development. Collective Impact is no different.”

I asked him about the qualities, skills and attributes that we need to be able to do this work.

“At the individual level we need leaders with the political savvy and the know-how to navigate the politics within a community – they need to have have big visions and be able to lead change efforts with people. They also need to have a passion that is ignited internally (not externally) and most important they are driven to be results based leaders, they are hungry to get results and are willing to push the limits of their abilities.”

“On a systems level we need our institutions to be designed to love – we need to redesign them so people are at the centre. Institutions must be able to love our children – transform the way they operate so they can deliver the outcomes to children that they need to flourish throughout their life and learning journey. At an organisational level we must be willing to develop staff and push the limits of their abilities.”

So what will sustain people to keep doing this work when it gets hard?

“We have to support each other just like families do. Its our fight, no one is going to come and save us, we have to want to do this work. For me, I have made the personal commitment that this is my life’s work, I may change jobs but I am in this for life. Mario Morino well known US philanthropist and author of the well known book; “Leap of Reason” said that the only competitive advantage we have is that you can innovate faster than others. We have to keep moving. I had to leave the organisation I was in to continue to innovate.”

As we closed the interview Michael finished by saying that, “I am profoundly shocked by how far geographically we are away, yet how close we are in our common challenges and commitments to improving the lives of the most vulnerable in our communities. Having a common language of Collective Impact, common agenda, common measures, will help us learn from each other and build the practice knowledge and encourage innovation to get the results we want”.

About the authors
Dawn O’Neil AM and Kerry Graham have just undertaken a Collective Impact study tour in the USA on behalf of the Centre for Social Impact. Their vision is to translate Collective Impact into the Australian context.

– See more at:

About Kerry Graham and Dawn O'Neil

Social change consultants

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