Collective Impact: A Compelling Cause & Compact for Growth

by Diana Aviv, president and CEO, Independent Sector

In the time it takes you to read this sentence, a child will perish. That is because almost 9,500 children around the world die every day from hunger and its related causes (Mercy Corps Report, “Home Grown Ways to End Hunger,” Summer 2011). If the nonprofit and philanthropic community is to lead the way tackling mega problems like this one, we must recognize that – no matter how capable or well funded our individual organizations – we can’t go it alone. To be successful, we have little choice but to consider strategic partnerships that might better align the resources, capacity, and potential of different organizations toward a shared goal. We should consider how working together might be a more effective way to deliver sustained, measurable impact in the long haul. We must consider collective impact – a term popularized last winter in the Stanford Social Innovation Review by FSG’s Mark Kramer and John Kania and my topic today. I appreciate the opportunity to share my thoughts on collective impact as a guest blogger.

In Mark and John’s study, they identified five criteria for successful collaborations:

  1. A common agenda;
  2. Shared measurement systems;
  3. Mutually reinforcing activities;
  4. Continuous communication;
  5. Backbone support organizations.

Rather than summarizing these criteria (please click here to read them), I would like to share two additional considerations for successful collaborations. First, I believe that coalitions have the greatest chance for success if they are rallying around an issue or problem that demands immediate action. Second, organizations should agree on a compact for growth at the outset, so that they are well prepared for requests to expand the focus of the coalition as they gain momentum.

A Sense of Urgency
Fruitful collaborations coalesce around compelling issues, particularly those with a time exigency. These might include the need for humanitarian assistance with mounting lives being lost every day (famine in Somalia comes to mind) or a senseless death that sparks public outrage (such as the creation of Mothers Against Drunk Driving after a driver — with a repeat history of driving intoxicated — killed a 13-year-old girl).

Some issues become more compelling over time and take a while to reach a moment of urgency. Environmental causes and green initiatives have gained traction over the past thirty years for many reasons, including better understanding of climate change and technological advances in clean energy. Charities have, in turn, responded to the green revolution. According to the IRS, the number of charities focused on environmental issues doubled from 1975 to 1995. The millennial generation seems to have taken to these issues, and when combined with ever-growing visible examples of climate change, have created the conditions that call for action now.

Whether precipitous or protracted, issues imbued with a sense of urgency and with a meaningful time deadline can propel collaborations forward. A compact for growth is another condition that may help them be successful.

A Compact for Growth
When any coalition gains momentum and begins to show big results, other organizations may naturally want to join them. Their reasons vary: some want to use the opportunity to add their specific agenda to an initiative that appears to be moving; others may want to change the direction or goals of the coalition. But as new organizations piggyback on the coalition’s gains, they may directly or indirectly cause the project to falter. Unless the original partners are prepared to deal with such pressures, the initiative can risk collapse under the weight of a diffuse, fragmented agenda. That is why having a clear, focused vision for proactively managing growth – before a partnership starts showing promising results – is so vital.

The value of generating a compact for growth is well illustrated by the Bhavishya Alliance in India that evolved from a partnership program between Synergos, UNICEF, and Unilever to end child hunger. Bhavishya (which means “future” in Sanskrit) kicked off its work in 2007 with 30 participants from government, business, and the NGO sector. Planning efforts to ensure their long-term sustainability began three years earlier with in-depth preparation that involved, among other things, articulating their strategic vision, charting a roadmap, and identifying measurable milestones. They also forged strong local partnerships with many organizations new to the idea of working across sector lines. This process honed their collective commitment not only to each other and the initiative, but to 75 million under nourished kids in India. This vital first phase was highly labor intensive, but it formed the DNA of the Alliance that has sustained them going forward. Last year, the network grew to some 50-75 members. Along the way, they have carefully managed their partnerships, which have evolved from those with a broad commitment to fighting hunger to organizations that bring specific, focused capabilities to the table.

Whether your work centers on hunger or climate change, disease eradication or legislative change, I encourage you to consider whether the conditions are ripe for you and like-minded stakeholders to discuss the potential for combined, collective impact. By working together, we can make a powerful difference improving lives and strengthening communities everywhere.

About Diana Aviv: Diana Aviv is president and CEO of Independent Sector, the national leadership forum for America’s nonprofits, foundations, and corporate giving programs. Diana is a leading speaker on trends in and key issues for the sector, such as the financial state of nonprofits, public policies affecting charities and foundations, the role of civil society in democracy, and civic engagement. She has testified several times before Congress and has been featured in media outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, NPR, and President Obama appointed Diana to the White House Council for Community Solutions in December 2010.


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