It takes a community to solve a big social challenge

February 5, 2014

Veer COllective Impact

Paul Born and Liz Weaver of the Tamarack Institute discuss why so many well-intentioned community organizations fail to solve our most important challenges (and what can be done to make a bigger impact).

When you’re trying to tackle huge, multi-faceted problems like poverty or crime prevention or environmental sustainability, tackling one aspect of an issue at a time or in isolation can become a sinkhole for already-scarce resources.

This is something the leaders at the Tamarack Institute realized early on. But it didn’t stop them from wanting to take on big challenges.

Instead, they engaged in Collective Impact (outlined in the video below) to try and positively influence the lives of 5,000 people who were living in poverty. What happened next was quite remarkable: As Liz Weaver, Vice-President at Tamarack explains, at the end of 10 years, they hadn’t just helped 5,000 people, “we had, in fact, impacted the lives of 202,931 individuals and households.”

These results are part of the reason Innoweave invited the Tamarack Institute to develop its Collective Impact module to make this approach even more accessible and easy to apply for community organizations in Canada. In fact, Innoweave’s Collective Impact module has been so successful that it is now being delivered to organizations in the US, Australia and New Zealand.

Here’s a simple, concrete metaphor illustrating the 5 key principles of Collective Impact and how it all works:

“Developing two hands-on workshops for Innoweave which help collaborative partners put the conditions of collective impact into practice has been inspiring,” says Weaver.

“Community change efforts usually happen in isolation and few people, except those at the table, know about the effort it takes to get change to happen. By working with different groups on different types of problems, we can learn from each other and improve together.”

Beware the urge to jump right in without a strategy!

“Because we are problem solvers, many of us dive right into the work without thinking

about what it will really take to tackle issues like poverty, homelessness, food security and neighbourhood revitalization. While the collective impact framework seems easy, it does require community partners to think through the problem they want to impact and to develop a strategy which will get them to results,” explains Weaver.

“Collaborative planning tables often don’t get the results or impact they hope for because the collaborative work is done off the side of the desk,” she says. Collaboration is not an end in itself; it’s one element needed to drive population or system level change.

 A Collective Impact approach requires that the partners agree to some foundational pieces:

  • A common agenda
  • Shared measurement
  • Mutually reinforcing activities.
  • Ongoing and continuous communications across the partners
  • For resources to support the effort moving forward (called a “backbone”)

It is when all five of the conditions of Collective Impact are employed that groups begin to see real traction, particularly if they pay attention to the shared measurement results they are achieving.

And when groups take the time to sit down, engage each other and think through a problem, things start to shift…

“There were many AHA! moments in our first Innoweave collective impact workshop,” Weaver smiles. “Perhaps the most interesting was the work that the groups did around engaging their communities on issues like food security, neighbourhood revitalization and access to recreation and the arts.”

Because when you’re dealing with more complex issues, Collective Impact is often the right kind of framework to engage multiple stakeholders and partners on many levels and help them all work synergistically. Otherwise, it’s too easy for a single organization to feel like it’s spinning its wheels despite innovation and excellent problem-solving.

“Collective Impact is successful when many diverse partners in the community are engaged in the work. Understanding who you need to engage and why they are important to the collective impact effort is critical. The community groups left the first workshop with a plan about how to engage their community in conversations that matter.”

You can watch Liz Weaver and Tamarack President, Paul Born, discuss some of their greatest insights in implementing the Collective Impact process here:

To find out how your own organization can benefit from a Collective Impact approach, and get expert coaching and a grant to help implement your learning, start by taking our Self Assesment here.