The End of Collective Impact

Submitted by toddbarr on March 14, 2016 - 3:35am

Collective impact (CI) is about trying to “move the needle” on complex community issues in our communities like poverty, housing and climate change – all towards a better life for all.

Or is it?

After reading Vu Le’s blog post Why Communities of Color are Getting Frustrated with Collective Impact (building on his earlier post Collective Impact: Resistance is Futile), I’m not so sure. Le describes CI projects vacuuming up resources like “The Borg on Star Trek” – with compliance to the CI initiative being demanded by funders and others to the exclusion of some groups and organizations.

In Paul Schmitz’s response Vu Le is Right* About Equity and Collective Impact, he states that “…[c]ollective impact efforts must understand how community works and invest both in services and the enabling environment. They can’t do that without community at the table.” I would take Schmitz’s point one step further: the need to incorporate structures of belonging into every aspect of a CI initiative.

In his book Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block presents the idea that if we expect a future distinct from the past, including one where all are enabled to participate in a ‘good’ life, then we must change the kinds of conversations we have - literally the structures of how we socialize and come together. Block encourages us to consider ‘six conversations that matter:’ invitation, possibility, ownership, dissent, commitment and gifts and to reframe any conversation with questions that are ambiguous, personal and anxiety evoking (Block states that “[a]ll that matters makes us anxious. It’s our wish to escape from anxiety that steals our aliveness. If there is no edge to the question, there is no power.”). Block’s book is full of insightful and thoughtful ideas that challenge our thinking about community – building on the insights of many thought leaders who he identifies. To me, belonging underlies the idea of community, which according to Meg Wheatly is the answer for any problem. Maybe this is what Schmitz meant by CI efforts “…understand[ing] how community works?”

Indeed, in Hanleybrown, Kania, and Kramer’s article Channeling Change: Making Collective Impact Work, they write about the “essential intangibles” of collective impact, including relationship and trust-building and creating a culture of learning. Why not make belonging a sixth condition of collective impact? Especially if the idea of trust, relationships, learning and belonging underlie everything on the road to success.

Another point that’s worth making is the difference between technical problems and adaptive problems. As Kania and Kramer point out in their seminal article on collective impact, not all issues need a collective impact approach – especially when “…the problem is well defined, the answer is known in advance, and one or a few organizations have the ability to implement the solution.” Funders and others would do well to remember this distinction.

For a while now, Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement has been promoting the ideas of deepening community and collective impact – let’s bring them more together! This insight may have resulted in my attending Tamarack’s super fabulous ‘Neighbours: Policies and Programs’ conference in Hamilton, ON in June 2015 (a Deepening Community Learning Community event) then the incredible Collective Impact Summit in Vancouver, ON in September 2015. Two community-based events that challenged and transformed the way I understand things and have provided me with many ideas to work on for years to come.

Top this off with a fascinating Tamarack webinar where Mark Cabaj interviewed Michael Quinn Patton later in fall 2015 about his new book Developmental Evaluation Exemplars: Principles in Practice. In his book, Quinn-Patton identifies eight principles of developmental evaluation (DE) which help to clarify what DE is, and what it is not. When it comes to collective impact and belonging, DE is an approach that can help encourage and track the process of belonging for which there is, and never will be a roadmap that one can follow (i.e. it will always be ‘developing’). This thinking complements FSG’s seminal guide for using evaluation in CI initiatives – where DE is suggested as the approach for a CI initiative that is developing before switching to more traditional forms of developmental and summative evaluation when the CI initiative is more established. But is this ever possible? Can you ever really not use DE in some form when it comes to CI?

If a CI initiative is deeply embedded in community and wrestling with complex, ever-evolving issues, does it ever truly remain static? Perhaps when it comes to working with complex issues like violence against women, food access and job security, traditional models of evaluation that do not incorporate a DE approach are like classic approaches to strategy vs. more adaptive approaches (See O’Donovan and Flower’s article The Strategic Plan is Dead. Long Live Strategy). But that’s a topic for another blog…

If the goal of collective impact is towards a better life for all, then we need to re-think our motivation for involvement when issues of competitiveness and exclusion begin to appear. Can we let go of unnecessary bureaucracy, hierarchy and planning and make room for more emergent, adaptive (but still structured) approaches to the future? Can we declare a possibility that all types of community life will eventually orient towards structures of belonging – including CI initiatives and those involved?

I hope so or it may spell a different kind of end for collective impact.

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