Investing in Change: Implementing Collective Impact

Last month, FSG and GEO cohosted a webinar, “Investing in Change,” exploring the important roles of funders in collective impact efforts. The session was moderated by Kathleen Enright, and featured panelists including Emily Tow Jackson, Executive Director of the Tow Foundation; Ken Thompson, Program Officer, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Pacific Northwest Initiative; and FSG's own Fay Hanleybrown, Managing Director, and leader of FSG’s collective impact approach area.

In this 3-part blog series, we will answer some of the valuable inquiries that we were unable to address due to limited time during the webinar. Today’s blog—the third and final of the series of 3—focuses on implementation questions including geography, funding the infrastructure, managing potential competition among nonprofits, and working in a political environment.

Geography: How does collective impact play out in a rural context, and what considerations should we keep in mind? What does this look like in an international context? Are there examples of effective collective impact efforts that focus on an issue that spans broader geographies?

  • Emily: Our work around juvenile justice reform had been done on a statewide basis. Since Connecticut is a small state and has no county government, stakeholders from our state agencies and legislature, as well as local leaders and statewide advocacy groups have been active participants. Early reform efforts were focused primarily on the state agencies that control the system, but also engaged a diverse group of representatives from direct service providers, community groups and parent/youth advocates in the strategic planning. This fostered an atmosphere of inclusiveness that has been essential to the success of the implementation of the plan. Local folks learned that they can get further with the ear of state-level decision makers, and state agency heads learned the value of input from the people closest to the communities being served. Based on the success of this model in Connecticut, the same strategy is being used in the New York effort. Although the state is much larger and the county structure makes things more complicated, marked progress has been made and the plan is implemented based on a statewide vision and goals for reform.
  • Fay: Collective impact has been effectively implemented across a wide range of geographies, including rural and international contexts. As with any collective impact effort, it is important to identify credible champions, clarify the issue being taken on, and secure sufficient resources. One good rural example is Franklin County’s Communities that Care Coalition, where schools, non-profits, and local government have come together in a collective impact effort that has reduced youth binge drinking by 46% and smoking among youth by 44% over the past eight years. (Note: We will blog about collective impact in rural contexts in an upcoming blog post.) The Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN) is an international collective impact effort of NGOs and governments addressing hunger across 25 countries. GAIN operates through four program initiatives, which are supported by 15 working groups on both technical and programmatic topics. GAIN has reached as reached almost 400 million people with nutritionally enhanced food products. While the funding sources, issues, and players can look quite different across different geographies, the core principles of collective impact remain relevant.

Funding the “Infrastructure”: Would you suggest that funding should go away from direct services completely to fund backbone organizations or that some funding should still go toward direct services that are aligned with systems change work? Can you give examples where funding infrastructure was necessary, and what type of infrastructure was funded?

  • Ken: Our approach in the Road Map work is that ‘infrastructure’ (capacity) needs to be built both in the backbone organization, as well as in key community institutions essential for the Road Map to meet its goals, so we are funding both; the vast majority of our funding actually goes to aligned investments outside of the backbone. This includes grants directly to key providers of services (such as school districts and community colleges), as well as other kinds of field-level intermediary organizations, such as a local group focused on supporting youth development CBOs (for efforts such as determining common social-emotional metrics related to school success), or for another CBO to convene school and non-school stakeholders around the needs of English Language Learners. In that latter case, the CBO has really built up an area of expertise and a strong ability in this area, which they were not necessarily known for before.
  • Fay: We have come to understand that the roles that a backbone organization plays are critical to success in collective impact, and that this “infrastructure” is typically under-valued by funders who are more accustomed to funding direct service providers. It is, however, also important that direct service providers are supported to execute activities that are aligned with the common agenda, and to engage in collective impact efforts. For example, the capacity building needs of organizations to effectively participate in shared measurement are often underestimated by funders and organizations launching collective impact efforts. Funders can also play an important role in funding the capacity of organizations to work more effectively together. This includes funding facilitation that leads to common agenda building and common strategies, investing in mapping tools that help stakeholders understand the overlaps, gaps and information flows within their system, and supporting data systems that enable the collection and sharing of information across organizations.

Competition between Nonprofits: How do you minimize competition between the nonprofit organizations?

  • Emily: The most important early ingredient to a successful collective impact effort is to bring a diverse group of stakeholders together to create a shared vision and goals. In my opinion, this process must be facilitated by a neutral entity who can insure that all voices are heard and all viewpoints are considered equally. This is the key to coming up with a guiding plan that everyone owns and which evens the playing field. Many times nonprofits have only engaged with each other as competitors. Given the opportunity to participate in a safe space, they will hopefully leave their individual agendas at the door and engage in productive collective visioning. My experience has been that a new sense of camaraderie emerges and folks who have formerly seen others as competitors or adversaries, find new and productive ways to relate to each other for mutual benefit.

Working in a Political Environment: Given the turnover with lawmakers, government partners and political environments, what are you doing to ensure that the system changes are sustained, reinforced or built upon?

  • Emily: The thing that has sold me on a collective impact strategy is that no one entity or individual owns the work or is essential to carry it forward. When you rely on a governor or state agency head to lead the charge, years of hard work can disappear overnight when new people are elected or appointed. The efforts we have participated in and funded have been based on engaging a complex and diverse group of stakeholders, not on a top down method of leading the effort. As players change, it is important to make sure the backbone structure continues to orient new participants. But largely people gravitate toward success and if the effort is making solid progress, newly elected or appointed folks will want to participate. And as the work becomes more imbedded in state policy, it’s much harder for one individual to undo.


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