Collective Impact: Learnings from the Field

March 22, 2016

Innoweave Collective Impact Coach Sally Fazal shares her experience supporting collaboratives working on large-scale change through Innoweave’s Collective Impact module and related Youth CI and Seniors SI initiatives.

Read her post and explore the key learnings from Sally’s time as an Innoweave coach, including the importance of a clarified impact focus, evidence-based decision making, and coaching to reach your ultimate impact.

I have spent most of my career working in corporate settings, and have spent the past 7 years consulting in the non-profit sector. Since leaving corporate Canada, I have learned a lot about how successful strategy differs across sectors and a lot more about how it’s the same. Setting clear goals and establishing accountability, mitigating the ‘tyranny of the urgent’, investing in capacity, supporting research and innovation are principles that have served corporate interests well and can serve the non-profit sector well too.

Innoweave’s work in Impact and Strategic Clarity has been a powerful and universally positive experience for the organizations that have used it. Many of the same principles have been incorporated into Innoweave’s Collective Impact initiatives like Youth CI and Seniors SI.

The community sector in Canada is constantly adapting, always searching for new solutions. From what I’m learning about the sector, there are some characteristics of organizations and certain complex issues that new collective approaches are well-suited to address, such as:

  • Problems that are often large and complex
  • Organizations that are often small, or with limited capacity
  • Feelings of disengagement from the average citizen (“What can I do? I’m only one person”)
  • Disenchantment from citizens who are engaged, but feel that others don’t get it (“there’s no point, they won’t change”)
  • Players in the system that don’t empathize, and can demonize others (“Corporations only care about profit”, “The tree huggers don’t understand how the real world works”)

These issues exist in complicated systems, and we often feel it is a challenge just to get started. But, there are ways of tackling these problems that can help – the Collective Impact approach is one. With Innoweave, our learning about Collective Impact in the past three years has coalesced into three main themes:

  1. Clarity of impact is critical to progress – to build for success, you need to have a specific population level impact focus. This is an important first step and the basis for building a collective initiative.
  2. Evidence-based decisions are necessary to optimize resources and to clarify engagement and member recruitment – this addresses the breadth of engagement with others outside the movement and helps infuse rigour into collective decision making
  3. Coaching support is an essential component – coaching helps focus on developing skills and knowledge and the capacity to think and act strategically, integrate effort and broaden engagement

In the Innoweave model of Collective Impact, we build on these themes and create customized supports to help collaboratives in communities across Canada create large scale change. As a coach, I convey these main points to those I support, to help facilitate the development of this collective work:

Clarity of impact is critical to progress. Define the problem you’re trying to solve, establish the impact you want to have on the problem and take on accountability for it.

  • This can be overwhelming – ending poverty, or homelessness, or addressing climate change, or conserving and protecting an ecosystem are too big for a few organizations within a collective to take accountability for. Break the problem down and focus on a specific impact.

Evidence based decisions are necessary to optimize resources. There will be influences outside your control, but we shouldn’t let those stop us. Keep developing your strategy and adapt as needed.

  • We develop a Theory of Change as a tool for describing the links between our actions on a system and the outcomes we can be accountable for. Planning from an evaluation perspective is key – by interrogating the links between what we’re doing and the outcomes our actions produce, we can understand better what’s working well or poorly, what elements we’re missing in a system. Being realistic about outcomes, setting up a Theory of Change from an evaluation perspective, and filling the gaps through engaging with other players and levers in the system, sets up an effective feedback loop and will enhance your effectiveness over time.

Coaching support is critical. Use the coaching support available to you through Innoweave to help you advance – and help you build capacity in other ways.

  • There are many challenges with building collective impact initiatives, and capacity is almost always one of them. Non-profit organizations are often small and specific issue oriented. Finding common ground with other organizations working on the same issue can be challenging, but finding the time and resources to engage and work in an integrated way on common goals can seem impossible. While it seems daunting to come together in collectives to solve problems and drive positive outcomes, it must be done. I don’t have easy answers on exactly how to do this, but if organizations don’t try to integrate their efforts, their survival will be more precarious. This is where coaching can help: it extends your capacity in the short term, builds skills and knowledge, and gives you an outside perspective against which to test your thinking. Most importantly, working collectively can help your organization integrate its core work with others and thereby leverage your existing capacity.

There are many other factors that lead to success in Collective Impact – strong leadership, effective shared measurement and good communication, to name only a few. But, every collaborative has to start somewhere and I’ve found these three points the most valuable to address at the outset.

There are dozens of new collaboratives being supported by coaches like me across the country, and as they build, we look forward to adding to our understanding of Collective Impact.