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The Single Most Powerful Way to Describe Collective Impact

I recently spoke with the Director of Curriculum and Instruction at a small school district in Ohio that is participating in a collective impact effort focused on improving school readiness. When I asked her to tell me about why collective impact was so important in her community, do you know what she did? She told me a story.

It goes like this:

“When we started with this goal of improving school readiness, the first thing we did was bring together principals, Head Start teachers, and kindergarten and pre-K teachers to look at the kindergarten readiness scores for incoming students in our district. What we found was that incoming kindergarteners scored low in a number of important areas – rhyming, alliteration, letter identification – but this didn’t tell us what we should do about the problem.

As a group, we decided that we needed more information, so we agreed to begin administering a survey to the parents of incoming kindergarteners, asking where their child had attended a program or received care prior to entering school (e.g., Head Start, district pre-K, daycare center, family, friend or neighbor care). With this information, we could look at the differences in readiness scores for the kids coming from different programs. What we found was that the children who had attended local daycare centers lagged significantly behind their peers in their readiness scores. But the daycare teachers hadn’t been invited to the table to help us think about how to improve school readiness. We hadn’t considered how important they were to this equation.

So, we made up for lost time and invited the daycare teachers to join us in our efforts to improve school readiness. We were careful when sharing the readiness data not to be accusatory or to blame anyone for lower scores but to approach our examination of the data with an attitude of curiosity and interest, engaging the daycares as partners. And it was really interesting – the daycare teachers said, “We never thought of ourselves as being all that important to academic success.” It boosted their morale to have the district inviting them to this effort as an equal partner and they were receptive to trying to make things better.

Together, our expanded group determined that we needed training in targeted areas to help us improve students’ readiness. With the help of our backbone organization, we identified pro bono training support and arranged a one-day session devoted just to rhyming. After the session, we continued a community of practice among the daycare, Head Start, and pre-K teachers to discuss how they were applying what they had learned.

That’s all we did. And guess what? The following year’s readiness scores in the area of rhyming went through the roof.

So we repeated the process for the area of alliteration and again the following year, the students’ alliteration scores came up dramatically. More and more teachers are coming to our meetings and trainings and are empowered to make change. We’ve got strong partnerships between the schools and the daycares. And most importantly – we’re making a difference for the kids in our community. This was my ‘a ha’ moment about collective impact.”

At FSG, we talk a lot about things like the importance of using data to guide decision making and about the need to identify mutually reinforcing activities to advance toward a collective goal. But I’ll be the first to admit that people’s eyes can glaze over when we make these points without offering concrete examples of what they actually mean for the community. In fact, I’ve been finding more and more that where collective impact truly comes alive for people is through stories.

A few weeks ago, I attended a workshop called, “Change the Story, Change the World” that was run by Andy Goodman, an expert on the power of storytelling. He offered some compelling examples supporting the idea that stories are our single most powerful communication tool in the social sector. (See this video about saving the Troy Public Library or this one by the Anti-Defamation League to be inspired).

He also shared some of the elements that all great stories have in common:

  • Context to set the stage
  • A protagonist
  • Conflict and barriers along the way
  • Emotion (e.g., humor, vulnerability)
  • Descriptive details
  • A clear ending or resolution

While I acknowledge that it can feel overwhelming to shift into the mindset of a storyteller, I’ve got to say that I’ve become a believer in the importance of doing so. When it comes to collective impact, I think our best bet for explaining the work and encouraging people to get involved is by sharing concrete examples of what the work really means. For backbone organizations and influential champions and passionate participants, this means identifying and disseminating your most powerful stories about the nature of the challenge you seek to address, the individuals who have been affected, and the progress you’ve seen along the way.

Tell us your story. How have you seen the power of collective impact in your community?

Katherine Errecart

Former Director, FSG