Well now I’ve fooled you. The one thing I’m referring to really represents the several great, insightful, and action-ready points made in the Getting to Collective Impact – Role of the Backbone Organization session during the Champions For Change Backbone Workshop. This conversation featured the reflections of experienced backbone leaders, currently steeped in the work. Chekemma Fulmore-Townsend from Project U-Turn and Cheryl Moder, from the San Diego County Childhood Obesity Initiative participated in a truly fruitful discussion facilitated by FSG managing directors John Kania and Fay Hanleybrown.
The entire Champions for Change Workshop was very powerful, providing many opportunities to go deep in critical issues, build relationships, and learn and share with peers in authentic and experience–based ways. It also provided practical and tested tools. In line with the tone of the workshop, Chekemma, Cheryl, Fay, and John discussed specific examples that helped put down the beginnings of a “path” for other collective impact initiatives, sharing insights that you simply can’t forget if you are interested in getting closer to collective impact outcomes.
Hearing from Chekemma and Cheryl particularly spoke to me. I grew up learning to play the viola through the Suzuki method. It worked well for me as a “model it for me” learner. My teacher would often say “Listen and Repeat” (Kiku and Rip?to). He would then play a few bars and I would do my best to emulate him. I recognize that collective impact is far too fluid and complex to simply listen and repeat. That said, it is still very useful to see real life tools and tactics from those more experienced in what is a complex and sometimes pioneering approach.
So where in the Getting to Collective Impact – Role of the Backbone Organization panel might you have found it really useful to listen, repeat, and adapt?
Chekemma discussed the challenge of leadership churn. Change in leadership of organizations around the collective impact table forces the backbone leader to be keen at relationship building and providing new value to key players at all times. I’ve noted in my work with other backbone organizations that succession planning for the backbone leader herself is also critical, assuming that your visionary, charismatic, servant-leader may not stay for the rest of their life.
On Shared Measurement:
Cheryl and Chekemma noted that siloed systems are a key barrier to truly understanding and using data to achieve common impact. Both backbone organizations have been working to get agreement on indicators for success that are broad, yet specific, and that include everyone’s efforts. It can also be challenging to measure attribution versus contribution – did the outcome result because of their work or were they able to contribute to the outcome? If it was a contribution, how much was due to the initiative? Both initiatives have been working to clearly disseminate their many successes to make known their role in both catalyzing and achieving progress toward their goals and the positive changes members of their community are experiencing in their issue areas.
Cheryl noted three secrets to their success. These included, 1) agreeing on a common agenda and vision early on and involving partners in this effort. This helped to build public will and create ownership in the plan. She also cites 2) their willingness to embrace emergence despite the challenges of doing so. And 3) building meaningful relationships has been crucial to their success. They work to dig deeper to find the “sweet spot” where agendas overlap, that place in the Ven diagram where the circles come together. They meet partners where they are and help them find the ways in which their efforts contribute to the common agenda and vision.
Chekemma credited several rules for the success of her initiative. 1) It’s important to be authentic. There is no substitute for having true and candid relationships with partners. 2) Listen – use your ears and eyes to truly hear what your partners are saying. Pay attention to meta communication and probe for underlying motives and sentiments. And 3) both panelists noted the importance of being fearless. Chekemma notes that sometimes you are the only one who can visualize the possibilities and greatness that lies in the partnership; so don't be afraid to champion the process. In addition, she noted the importance of avoiding the “blame game,” where one or more members of the partnership are seen as somehow more responsible for solving the problem (e.g. the schools). Instead, define the work in ways that speak to common solutions with roles for all parties – i.e. “the task is too great for any single organization alone to accomplish.”
Cheryl noted that there is no need to recreate the wheel. Build on the knowledge and experience of others who have created successful collective impact initiatives. There are plenty of models out there. She suggests that leaders learn what has worked for others and determine, based on their issues, partners, and environments, what will work best for them.
For communities looking to collective impact as an approach, Cheryl suggests that they avoid jumping in too quickly. Be sure you take the time to fully understand what collective impact is, that you have a well-qualified organization to serve as the backbone, and that you have the right players at the table—as well as the financial support—to get your initiative off the ground and sustain it over time.
Chekemma highlighted the importance of:
Building a partnership of diverse members who are respected within their sectors, can speak with authority, and are committed to the goal.
Using data to build a common understanding of the issues, to create benchmarks for progress, and to help members understand why it’s important that they be at a common table.
Taking the time to develop trust among partners. This requires honest communication, and can be jump-started by identifying and achieving some short-term successes.
Creating a work plan that includes short- and long-term goals
Developing and publicly highlighting specific measures for which the collaborative agrees to be publicly accountable.
Avoiding the “blame game,” where one or more members of the partnership are seen as somehow more responsible for solving the problem (e.g. the schools). Instead, define the work in ways that speak to common solutions with roles for all parties – i.e. “the task is too great for any single organization alone to accomplish.”
These important points are real world and real life, shared by collective impact practitioners who are seasoned and have tried this work, faced its challenges, adjusted, tried again, and have found some great successes. I’ll be drawing on them as I continue down my own path exploring the world of collective impact, and I hope you do too.