Posted Monday, February 9, 2015 at 8:42 pm

This post marks the launch of a new Forum blog series on the nuts and bolts of aligning coalitions and initiatives for collective impact.

For more than a decade, the Forum for Youth investment has helped communities map, convene and align coalitions and initiatives focused on the interlocking issues that affect young people's futures, from premature births to college completion. Cast the net widely enough – say, along the whole cradle-to-career continuum – and even the smallest communities can identify dozens of efforts with overlapping goals, members, strategies and funders, even if their connections are relatively light. Cast the net narrowly, and those same communities are likely to find that there is more than one coalition focused on early childhood or violence prevention that have never sat together to discuss how their work overlaps.

The underlying tenets of the collective impact approach call this type of benign co-existence into question. Alignment is essential to success. As leaders in communities around the country explore how to implement collective impact strategies, the "how to align" questions are right at the top of the list.

That was clear during a recent webinar, Aligning Multiple Initiatives in One Community, organized by the Forum for Youth Investment with the Collective Impact Forum: nearly 400 people joined the webinar and almost 100 questions were submitted over the course of the hour. It was impossible to tackle all the questions in 60 minutes – but we will attempt to tackle more of them now.

A question we heard multiple times then was, "How do we get started aligning collective impact efforts?"

And following this thread, we continued down the alignment spiral with even more questions, like "Who initiates the process?" "Who facilitates it?" "How long does it take?" "Is there a way to anticipate what's needed and have supports ready?" and "How do you manage expectations?"

So, where to start?
 

Aligning for Impact: How do we get started?

Step 1. Be clear on why you're starting alignment discussions.

More often than not, the alignment question is raised by one of the potential "aligners" that is at a decision point where it’s appropriate to ask, "Is there a better way?" These "aligners" could be leaders of a collaborative effort, a funder or group of funders, a government entity – anyone who has a major piece of the puzzle and desire to connect the dots. While the questions are often posed with an eye towards increased efficiency – "there must be a better way to do business" – to be effective, the focus of the conversations begins and ends with "in order to make a more powerful impact." Aligning goals, agreeing on shared measurement and shared diagnosis of the issues and, ultimately, aligning how to work together is all about finding better ways to change outcomes more quickly and at scale.

This was certainly the case in the two communities featured on the webinar: Bartholomew County, Indiana, and Northern Kentucky.

In Bartholomew County, the United Way was a partner in multiple community-wide initiatives focused on education, youth development and workforce preparation. The time had come to lock down appointments to a formal Education Council that would oversee the United Way's strategic commitments in that area.

Many of the same people were sitting on similar councils with overlapping goals. The CEO of the United Way – coming fresh off of some training in the Forum's Big Picture Approach in which alignment values and strategies were discussed – decided to push pause on the United Way process while he raised the alignment question with the other groups. This willingness to take the time to understand and connect to what was already going on gained him the respect of the other groups, which were housed within the local school district and the business roundtable.

In Northern Kentucky, the impetus came from a similar point, with one leader noting that "a lot of the same people are having similar conversations but in different groups." (Read more about this in the SSIR case article Aligning Collective Impact Initiatives.)

Note: We’ve seen instances in which the impetus for raising the question came from outside of the potential group of aligners (such as a funder) or from an entity whose motives were suspect (that is, the alignment proposal was seen as a power grab). Getting to success in the first scenario is possible if the funder a) guessed right on the need for and interest in alignment, b) provided facilitation and, ideally, compensatory support to the initiatives invited to participate, and c) made it clear that the decisions about whether and how to align would be made by the group, not the funder.
 

Step 2. Be clear about the range of alignment options.

Formal structural alignment isn't always the immediate goal and might not be the best long-term solution. Decisions to create a new entity; formally shift staffing, funding and decision-making responsibilities to a named partner; or merge or restructure existing groups cannot be made quickly and, in our experience, can often be made too early. It is as important for the structure to emerge from shared seeing and learning as it is for the strategies.  

In Northern Kentucky, there was a shared sense of frustration about the duplication of work across education initiatives, along with a publicly stated goal from key stakeholders (including funders) that some structural tightening needed to be done. Alignment discussions were made easier by the fact that a key entity facilitating the process (called Vison 2015) had already announced that it did not want to lead the new structure; rather, it sought a way merge its current work into a broader, more robust initiative.

In Bartholomew County, goal and strategy alignment were the presenting targets: a leadership transition was being used to strengthen the capacity of the partner coalition with the broadest youth goals rather than to collapse the functions into other collaborative efforts.

In other communities, like Monterey County, Calif., they have begun an intentional process of alignment exploration. Collective impact discussions have sparked the curiosity of partners committed to learning more about each other and creating non-threatening ways to bring a broader group of coalitions focused on child and youth issues together to explore opportunities through carefully facilitated sharing and discussion processes.

Note: Aligning for impact should be seen as an ongoing commitment, not a quick structural decision. Alignment isn’t just about who gets to be the backbone when there is more than one candidate. It’s about helping all the current efforts contribute to progress toward a shared goal.

In Atlanta, for example, prevention coalitions that focused on single issues – such as teenage pregnancy, substance abuse and violence – together created an adolescent services network so that they could better connect to the emerging cradle-to-career education partnership, which had organized action teams by age groups. This adolescent services network was represented on the cradle-to-career leadership council. More importantly, the coalitions worked together to coordinate their own efforts, which both aligned with and informed the broader initiative.  
 

Step 3. Be clear on what it will take to manage the process and how long it may take to complete it.

Aligning existing initiatives is hard and sensitive work. A good rule of thumb: The more alike the initiatives, the harder and more sensitive the work. Bringing together 20 coalitions focused on an array of issues to explore coordination around a specific goal (e.g., how coalitions focused on child health, literacy, afterschool programming and foster care could work together to support homeless children and youth) is less threatening and requires less skill than bringing together three or four coalitions that have 70 percent overlap in their goals, strategies, footprints and funders.

Do-it-yourself tools, like the Mapping Moving Trains checklist and survey developed by the Forum for Youth Investment and found on the Collective Impact Forum website, provide focused questions that can help local staff kick off the a alignment process. Over-the-phone or as-needed advice from consultants who have facilitated these processes before can be added to provide additional support once there is a sense of who wants to be involved, what additional information is needed, and what type(s) of alignment the group would like to pursue.

When deeper types of alignment are likely, we recommend a skilled, neutral facilitator/consultant. This support doesn’t have to come from outside of the community, but the individual or organization charged to manage the process has to be seen as neutral and knowledgeable by all parties. The alignment process typically takes six months to negotiate and a year or more to implement fully. Good facilitation skills are critical, but the potential partners who sign up to participate will benefit if the facilitator comes with three things:

  1. a conceptual road map (a common framework and language),
     
  2. a tool box (a diverse set of tools, examples, and resources), and
     
  3. experience soliciting and synthesizing complex and often confidential information through interviews, confidential surveys and group discussions.

Note: There are huge differences between how organizations and initiatives present themselves on paper, the capacities that they really have and how they are perceived. For this reason, alignment will always be an "art," even though communities can and should work hard to incorporate the emerging “science” associated with soliciting information, assessing capacities and defining the basic conditions of successful partnerships. The process should always be guided by a trusted, neutral advisor.
 

Step 4. Document decisions and anticipate their impact.

Aligning existing initiatives is hard work. The payoffs are greater efficiency, effectiveness and/or scale. The Forum for Youth Investment uses three gears to depict our theory of change as it relates to improvements in child, youth or family outcomes.

The largest gear (population level outcomes) is the slowest to move and moves only when the middle gear (community, family and system conditions) moves steadily with all the “teeth” connecting. Getting this gear to move steadily and connect fully requires improvements in coordination, quality and reach across a range of direct service systems, formal and informal.

These "system" improvements are the focal point of collective impact initiatives. These improvements (e.g., increases in the availability of child care or college scholarships, decreases in the availability of alcohol to minors, or above minimum wage jobs) and the associated population-level outcomes are easy to measure even if data collection is hard.

The actions taken to spark these improvements, however, are often invisible. It is important to categorize the actions upfront, set improvement goals and document progress so that the group can manage the improvement process.

Think about the six backbone functions described by FSG: Should the alignment of initiatives (which in the end means the alignment of decisions, staffing and resources) make functions like fund development, data sharing or advocacy more coherent? More efficient? More robust? Why? (What changed?) What accomplishments are more likely because of the alignment? More training for professionals across systems who work with families? New incentives to coordinate outreach and intake efforts? Broader campaigns to increase public awareness and public will? Significant increases or shifts in public and private funding allocations?

Taking the time to think this through at the front end will provide the baseline data to explain why the process and the end result are worth supporting. There are tools and simple methodologies that support this type of planning, documentation and analysis. This is an essential part of collective impact that’s often called "community change management."

Note: Documenting decisions and tracking what gets done is critical to effective partnerships. As groups make decisions about the systems to support their shared measurement, it is essential to identify not only outcomes and community supports, but also methods to track the partnership’s decisions, actions and progress. You might have to find a partner that can provide partnership data and evaluation services. We, for example, partnered with Community Systems Group, so that we could access online systems, technical supports and training.

Move Forward. I know; these are a lot of questions to answer up front. Considering these questions will help you lay the groundwork for making your collective impact work more efficient and effective. And you’ll see the pay off as you tackle the next set of questions, about How do we decide on the new structure?

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Watch this space for more in the continuing blog series on the nuts and bolts of aligning coalitions and initiatives for collective impact. The next questions we will dive into include:

  • How do we decide on the new structure? How is the new aligned group structured and staffed? Does one group take the lead? Is a new group formed? Where do funders fit in? How is funding sought and shared? Who gets credit for success?
     
  • How do we get and share data? How is data collected and shared across partners? What kind of shared measurement systems are used?

We encourage you to read the Stanford Social Innovation Review article on which the webinar was based, as well as my earlier blogs about aligning initiatives. And while there were lots of questions about how the Forum helps communities, here we are sharing basic strategies and experiences. Find out more about us at www.forumfyi.org or ian@forumfyi.org.

For Forum members, please share with us your thoughts in the comments:

  • How have your experiences in aligning initiatives and coalitions matched these start-up strategies?
  • What has worked well for you?
  • What questions do you have about where to start?