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How to Explain Collective Impact to Your Mom

FSG, the Strive NetworkTamarack, and the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions recently hosted a three-day workshop for leaders from backbone organizations of mature collective impact initiatives. This blog is part of a series sharing learning and reflection from the workshop.

Questions like “How do we explain what we do?” and “What’s the elevator speech?” came up over and over again at the Champions for Change Backbone Workshop earlier this month. Faced with these questions, Jeff Edmondson of The Strive Partnership joked that he has always had a hard time explaining to his mom what he does for a living. Perhaps this is no surprise since much of the work of Collective Impact (and of the backbone, in particular) involves less-than-sexy tasks like convening stakeholders, mobilizing resources, and analyzing data.

Nevertheless, Jeff had a great nugget of advice when it comes to creating a powerful and concise message about Collective Impact: focus on the ultimate goal you seek to achieve. He says that in the early days of The Strive Partnership, they explained their work by talking about the adults – i.e. the multi-sector actors who had to work together in order to improve educational outcomes in Cincinnati. But as the effort evolved, Strive made an intentional shift – they starting talking about the kids. In its simplest messaging, Strive now talks about getting better results in education for “every child, every step of the way, cradle to career.” Jeff says that this shift has been effective in helping all types of stakeholders to understand and get excited about what the partnership aims to achieve.

Kevin Starr makes a similar point in his Stanford Social Innovation Review post, The Eight-Word Mission Statement, arguing that a good mission statement (which is the key vehicle through which any of us explain what we do) is about the what, not the how. In the case of Collective Impact, this means talking first about the ultimate goal – eradicating homelessness, preventing childhood obesity, restoring a local tributary – before discussing the journey of planning, data, aligned activity, and other work that it takes to get there.

Now let’s be clear: explaining Collective Impact by focusing on the end goal is not sufficient, especially for those you’d like to engage more deeply in the work. But think about it – isn’t this where we should begin any conversation about Collective Impact? If we ground every conversation and every meeting in the change that we seek to achieve, we’re reminding each other of why this work is so important; why we need to act together even when the climb is steep; and why the effort is worth it.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this topic.  What have you found to be most effective and compelling when it comes to explaining Collective Impact?

Katherine Errecart

Former Director, FSG