I knew something was up last winter when I received more than 20 e-mails in a span of 48 hours asking if I had read this new article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. Kramer and Kania’s article on collective impact clearly struck a chord. It only took reading a few paragraphs to figure out why: They hit the “innovation” trifecta. Having chosen a topic we all care about and believe in – building partnerships and collaborations – they:
- stated that most partnerships have limited impact (something we all know but don’t often say),
- declared strong partnerships essential, because complex problems require collective impact strategies, and
- told us what we have to do to build collaborations that are up to the task.
All three of these observations were needed. The first two are the most important. Kania and Kramer’s conditions of success are spot on, but alone, they would have gone the way of other “collaborative self-help” articles. (Googling “building collaborations” nets 13.7 million results.) Collective Impact’s real power comes from the authors’ objective declaration that building strong collaborations is both essential and difficult.
Collaborations proliferate because they are intuitively right, politically correct and cheap to start. The easiest, cheapest way to “take action” is to call for some type of coordinated effort championed by someone who can generate enthusiasm. Collaborations are frequently considered a cost of doing business as much as an effective business strategy.
So while we often don’t make collaborations strong, we are loathe to declare them wrong. The result: dozens of local entities with overlapping goals, strategies and members competing for waning attention and scarce resources.
The Curse of Proliferating Collaborations
An inventory of “moving trains” in a mid-size community can easily uncover 50 collaborations, initiatives, task forces, partnerships and networks – each with a goal, a set of strategies and a roster of members who work to shape policy, improve and coordinate services, or secure resources to improve the lives of children and youth. Following Kania and Kramer’s five-step plan could make each of these entities stronger individually. But we need them to be stronger together. We need their five conditions on steroids:
- a common agenda that speaks to improving academic, health and social outcomes of children from birth to young adulthood
- shared measurement systems that not only track children’s progress, but link that progress to performance improvements of the systems and settings where children spend their time
- mutually reinforcing activities not only among providers on the front lines, but among coalitions and decision makers working on everything from prenatal care to college success
- continuous communication within and across all levels of the infrastructure and out to the public
- backbone supports organized in a way that ensures the success of the whole even when the support functions are spread across several entities.
Fortunately, community leaders are ready for new strategies. The Forum conducts Ready by 21 Leadership Capacity Audits in communities where it works, and through those audits local leaders – from government, education, business, philanthropy and nonprofit organizations – routinely affirm that they cannot make significant progress without meeting three standards for change: an overarching leadership council covering birth to adulthood; aligned coalitions and networks; and engaged stakeholders. On a scale of 1-5, they rate the importance of these standards at an average of 4.5. Asked how well their communities meet them, the average is 2.4.
The recent Strive Network conference in Portland, Ore., also showed that local decision makers hear the call to create the “civic infrastructure” they need to achieve collective impact from “cradle to career.” The energy was palpable in the plenary sessions, as informal panels of leaders reinforced the “why” and described the “what” of their work. From this point on, the challenge is to help leaders get more support for the “how” and to tread carefully as they define the “who.” The creation of CEO-level partnerships is crucial; without them, we will never slice through the silos that thwart innovation and limit accountability. But the CEOs must recognize how important it is to not only organize themselves into a new partnership, but to acknowledge, align and sometimes consolidate the collaborative work already underway. This becomes one of the most important tasks taken on by the backbone support organization, and the one that requires the most skill.
Karen is President and CEO of the Forum for Youth Investment, a national action tank committed to ensuring that all young people are Ready by 21®: ready for college, work and life.