Skip to main content
Previous Blog Home Next

Brussels Sprouts and Collective Impact

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite times of the year. In my family, Thanksgiving is a big gathering with aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, second cousins and friends of all of the above. I can picture the scene - twenty or thirty people sitting at long folding tables, wonderful smells coming from the kitchen, toasts being made, children running in circles around the table, and the hum of conversation and laughter.

So why, I’m sure you’re thinking to yourself, am I talking about Thanksgiving in April? Because for me, a Thanksgiving meal is a very simple metaphor for Collective Impact. I’ve never been to a Thanksgiving meal that was prepared by a single person – it is a collective effort. The food is prepared by lots of different people, but there is rarely duplication – you’ve got the turkey, stuffing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, beans, pies and of course the controversial brussels sprouts. Each dish is prepared by someone different, often in different kitchens, and with varying levels of expertise and data. There is even a shared measurement system – although unspoken – as it’s always clear which pie gets finished first. Recipes are shared and passed on or discarded from year to year. The host acts as an informal “backbone”, helping to set the menu and coordinating dishes but never dictating exact ingredients or how the food is made.

But of course at Thanksgiving, it’s not just what you eat but who’s at the table that is important. In my family, we know that the friend from out of town who has a fondness for Glenn Beck should not be seated next to Aunt Jean, the radical feminist. And that while a little wine is essential to the party, it’s not a good idea for Uncle Peter. As with collective impact, understanding the relationships and personalities at the table are critical to a successful party. To take the metaphor to the social sector, taking a Collective Impact approach means that individual organizations are going beyond coming up with their best recipe in their own kitchens to being participants in a multiple-course Thanksgiving dinner to which all the stakeholders for a social issue are invited. It is a far bigger and more complex, and also very exciting, party. As Mary Jean Ryan at the Community Center for Education Results recently said, “We are finally organizing in ways appropriate to impact a system.”

FSG and SSIR recently hosted a day-long conference on collective impact, and it was clear from the 300+ attendees - who included nonprofits, funders, corporations, and government entities - that this is an idea that has wide resonance that cuts across sectors and issues. The conference was full of great discussion and insights from practitioners (including Jeff Edmondson from Strive Partnership, Howard Shapiro from Mars Incorporated, Tobias Aguirre from Fishwise), funders (Paul Shoemaker from SVP, Sterling Speirn from Kellogg, Norman B Rice from The Seattle Foundation, Emmett Carson from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation), industry experts (Ed Skloot from Duke, Diana Aviv from Independent Sector, Jane Wei-Skillern from Stanford, and FSG’s own John Kania and Mark Kramer) and the audience. The conference highlighted the importance of shifting mindsets in order for existing players to work together more efficiently toward a common goal, and the need for data and a neutral backbone organization as well as trust between players. As with all good ideas, the discussion about Collective Impact has led to some very good questions, to name a few: What really needs to be in place to be successful with Collective Impact, and how do you assess readiness? Who do you include? How much community engagement should there be? What do you do with mediocre players? Who decides what is “effective”?

The recent conference was an opportunity to learn from one another, but with only a single day of discussion it just scratched the surface of how to do Collective Impact well. We heard from attendees that there is a strong desire to keep learning from successful efforts underway, and we look forward to continuing our work and research on this important approach. Do you have Collective Impact examples to share? What have been the successes and challenges you have faced in launching and sustaining a Collective Impact effort? Please share your stories with us, so that we can share them with you.

Fay Hanleybrown

Managing Director