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Talking Heads or Turning Heads: Collective Impact in Massachusetts?

A headline in last week’s Boston Globe caught my eye: “Gathering of Captains to Ponder Civic Woes.” The story describes how 50 or so business, civic, and political leaders plan to gather at a wooded retreat to discuss tough social issues facing the state of Massachusetts. But will anything come out of this so-called Commonwealth Summit? Will solutions to rising health care costs, state budget deficits, and job losses emerge?

I applaud the efforts of the state’s leaders to explore joint solutions to social challenges. However, I fear the rustic setting and cocktails by the fireplace will not result in a common agenda and a clear action plan. What’s most likely is that these leaders will return to their day jobs with the best of intentions but without the necessary capacity, direction, or coordination to facilitate necessary change. So what’s missing?

What’s really needed is for leaders to identify a collective impact strategy. As FSG wrote in a recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, collective impact strategies require a common agenda, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communications, shared measurement systems, and a backbone support organization. Large scale social change requires getting specific about how cross-sector coordination happens – not just coming together for a meeting.

Consider the recent collective impact efforts in the Seattle area focused on dramatically improving educational outcomes from cradle to college and career. Supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, FSG has been working with key funders, education professionals, and community leaders to develop a common framework, core goals, and measures across the educational continuum. The Seattle Foundation established a new intermediary, the Community Center for Education Results, which guides the multi-stakeholder work and has developed a “Road Map for Education Results.”

Perhaps this Massachusetts meeting represents the first step toward more defined and focused solutions to the state’s problems. We can hope it provides a venue to build relationships, break down typical institutional barriers, and reduce the posturing common to public discourse. However, without a clear path forward with accountability for results, it risks making this Boston.com post seem prescient: “I don't expect much to come out of this schmooze session other than words, empty promises, and wind.”

Will this retreat result in turning heads or just more talking heads? For the future of this state and social problems in general, let’s hope for the former.