This essay was originally posted to Philanthropy Northwest on April 2, 2014.
Collective Impact, philanthropy’s flavor of the day, has entered its back-biting season — a positive sign, given that push back is often a signal that a creative disruption is working. In this blog post, I’ll parse why the funder community has so enthusiastically embraced Collective Impact and how it has already produced learnings that we shouldn’t throw out when its season as the shiny new thing inevitably ends.
Above all, Collective Impact has helped us understand that deeply listening together into complex systems is the first step towards understanding our most intractable social problems. This directly challenges two of American philanthropy most persistent flaws: a preference for academic theory over front line engagement and a preference for the straight-arrow of “how-to” action planning over “what’s really going on here” iterative inquiry and dialogue.
Collective Impact’s second big contribution is elevating the role of evidence and data in designing strategy. Shared metrics and evidence-based practices have helped us realize that we can aim the buckshot of atomized funders, fragmented nonprofit providers and even personally impacted individuals towards a common solution. Acknowledging shared direction allows us to move to greater impact by creating a shared theory of change and benchmarks that transcend the personal and often-anecdotal frames that a marginalized and undercapitalized third sector has too often allowed itself to lapse into. When a community or a field defines “success” and endorses several promising pathways up the mountain, we establish a common road map that leads to greater alignment around shared direction. This increase in traffic and shared use in turn leads to more explicit, widely distributed rules of the road: evaluation and accountability measures.
This morning I read an article by Nicholas Kristoff on the progress the domestic violence movement has made over the last two decades. It upended the opinions and working assumptions I gained while serving as an interim executive director of a large domestic violence service provider. Kristoff writes, “Based on victimization surveys, it seems that violence by men against their intimate partners has fallen by two thirds since 1993. Attitudes have also changed as well. In 1987, only half of Americans said that it was always wrong for a man to beat his wife with a belt or a stick; a decade later, 86 percent said that it was always wrong.”
Kristoff goes on to recommend that “offenders should be required to attend mandatory training programs like the one run by Men Stopping Violence,” a position in direct opposition to the general disbelief in the possibility of offender rehabilitation I have seen reflected by local domestic violence leadership. And Kristoff doesn’t even begin to address the recent sea change away from building confidential domestic violence shelters to the new paradigm of keeping families and victims at home and in their communities while removing the offender.
Sometimes the need for service providers to maintain a case for ongoing funding support can muzzle evidence and outcomes. Or perhaps our shared narrative is so entrenched that we write off evidence that it’s wrong as exceptional or non-reproducible. Collective Impact has highlighted the need for us all to ground our shared strategies in evidence and proven intervention. By seeing ourselves as a network and understanding our roles in a shared system, we are forced to evaluate our practices against shared benchmarks for effectiveness, adding the calculus of “social benefit” to the warm fuzzy of “charitable intention.” Alignment is the secret sauce, the compass star whose shared direction is so essential in a system where 80% of foundations are run by volunteers with no paid staff and a system of nonprofit service providers which continues to grow exponentially and fragment into more and more independent and niche players.
“Attention is the purest form of generosity,” wrote Simone de Beauvoir. Alignment represents the outcome of a collective attention that gives us shared tools of evidence-based facts, theory and practice. If the essential argument behind Collective Impact is that problems are growing faster than community solutions can scale, then is it in fostering a stronger sense of shared purpose and emphasizing the value of explicit relationships that Collective Impact may provide its most lasting change. Practicing listening and the hard work of creating common language and movement through dialogue with representatives from all aspects of a system may create the boots-on-the-ground engagement needed that to correct for philanthropy’s historical preference for white paper theories-of-change that too often encourage “doing to” rather than ”doing with.”