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What Are We Doing Again?

Scope Definition in Collective Impact

If you’ve heard about collective impact, there’s a good chance you also know how collective impact efforts are defined by the existence of a “common agenda.” For collective impact efforts to work, key stakeholders need to have a shared vision for change: including a shared understanding of the problem they are trying to tackle, and what a joint approach to addressing that problem might look like.

That sounds great, but what does it really mean for stakeholders to get to a common agenda in practice? I had the privilege of grappling with this very issue on my most recent engagement with Washington State’s Essentials for Childhood (EfC) initiative. Originally conceived by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, EfC is currently being piloted across multiple states as an attempt to use collective impact to address child well-being and maltreatment. Thanks to support from several local funders, FSG has been able to partner with Washington State’s EfC backbone team over the past 4 months to launch their collective impact effort.

From Day 1, our team realized that defining the scope of the common agenda was going to be a challenge. Most simply, addressing child well-being is complex because it affects multiple systems on multiple levels. While child well-being is certainly about health, it also relates to other domains including education, child welfare, and juvenile justice. In turn, these areas are linked closely with issues like housing, community development, and racial equity. While it was obvious that our effort needed to focus on improving outcomes for children, at the same time, it also meant working with parents, schools, communities, and state-level policymakers to create changes in the environments in which children live. We had our work cut out for us – how could we help bring focus to tackling such a broad, complex issue?

We began by convening a group of state-level leaders with expertise across these various domains and levels. Beginning with individual interviews, we put together a narrative outlining the state of child well-being and maltreatment in Washington, which we then refined through a series of meetings with the group. It took time and resources to engage meaningfully with the relevant stakeholders, but the process helped the group come to initial consensus on the nature of Washington’s problems, and what a potential solution might look like. While the State’s EfC effort is still in its infancy, we’ve been able to outline some of the key parameters and questions the initiative needs to grapple with in order to arrive at a common agenda. For example, while stakeholders might agree about the need to make interventions across multiple stages of a child’s life-course, where should the initiative first focus its resources? Similarly, while the effort might need to create both community-level and state-level change, how is this effort uniquely positioned to create positive change in a complex landscape? And how should these choices concerning the effort’s strategic focus influence the constitution of its steering committee as it evolves?

If there’s one thing I’ve learned through the course of this project, it’s that getting to a common agenda when tackling complex social problems at scale can be tremendously challenging. Getting outstanding and busy leaders who are (rightly!) impatient for change to agree on a shared vision for change is certainly tough. Yet, the inconvenient truth is that we need multi-disciplinary and well-coordinated responses which are based on a shared vision for change in order to effectively tackle complex problems like child maltreatment. Collective Impact is a powerful tool because it provides a rigorous intellectual and organizational infrastructure for arriving at, and pursuing, this change.

Shijie "SJ" Lu

Former Senior Consultant, FSG