Getting Back to the Purpose of Collective Impact


My Aunt Janice’s biscuits are legendary. They are fluffy, buttery and light. Whenever we visit her in Alabama, we stop by to gorge ourselves on these delectable treats. I recently had a hankering for the biscuits so I asked for the recipe. While I’m not a huge fan of cooking, I don’t mind baking occasionally. The recipe only has four ingredients- flour, buttermilk, shortening, and butter. Simple, right?

I bought the ingredients and cooked a batch of biscuits. Even though I followed the recipe to the letter, my biscuits turned out hard as rocks. I was so disappointed that I called my sister who had recently mastered the biscuit recipe. She shared with me that while the recipe was straightforward and the ingredients were simple, the way to master the biscuits wasn’t. You had to commit to improving them over time, which means asking Aunt Janice questions along the way, and improving my technique based on what works best for me.

In many ways, driving social change requires a similar approach. I thought of this biscuit story while reading the exchange between Tom Wolff, Mark Kramer and John Kania about the criticisms of collective impact. My failure in baking biscuits illustrates a similar failure of those of us who support collective impact as an approach to creating collaborative change: We can get too focused on principles and theoretical frameworks when instead we should be encouraging and supporting a long term commitment to continuous learning and improvement.

I’ve mentioned before that collective impact is just a tool in service of continuous improvement for large-scale change. Most important are the people wielding the tool and the result they are working to achieve. At Living Cities, we are not advocates of collective impact. We do not consider criticisms of collective impact an affront to what’s good and right in the world. In fact, we have worked closely with leaders within the Collective Impact Forum to proactively provide more guidance on areas sorely missing like authentic and effective community engagement, increased investment in leaders, and an intentional focus on race, equity and inclusion.

Living Cities supports leaders to apply the principles of collective impact for one reason only: we believe the scale and scope of our nation’s most pressing problems require cross-sector leaders to work together to solve them. And while the elements of collective impact may seem deceptively simple, the hard work is really in what it takes to achieve the shared result. It would be tempting to rant about all the shortcomings of collective impact. But to me, that would be like yelling at the oven because of my failed biscuits. It is hard work to wield the tools effectively, and there is no manual in the world that will make that work easier.

So what have we seen help make up for the shortcomings of the tool of collective impact? One is creating communities of practice where leaders learn from and with each other on the path to social change. In fact, Living Cities is a co-catalyst of the Collective Impact Forum because over 15,000 people use this platform to virtually learn from and with each other every day to drive change in their cities. The second thing is learning in public. At Living Cities, we call this “open sourcing social change”. When community leaders are vulnerable enough to share what is not working, they tap into the collective problem solving that makes change possible. Lastly, we need an ongoing commitment to continuous improvement. Each community must relentlessly ask itself what is working, what is not working and why in service of the shared result. And communities must diligently channel its resources towards what does work and abandon what does not.

This work is hard and takes diligence and care and feeding. And while I must be honest that I wasn’t willing to put in the time to make better biscuits, I am committed to doing whatever it takes to improve the lives and opportunities of people across this country.

Continue the Discussion in the Following Posts:

Ten Places Where Collective Impact Gets It Wrong by Tom Wolff (Tom Wolff & Associates)

Advancing the Practice of Collective Impact by John Kania and Mark Kramer (FSG)

What do you think? Share your thoughts and comments below.


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