What Can Collective Impact Learn from Organizing?


As the dust settles from hosting our fourth annual Collective Impact Convening, I have been reflecting on many of the wide-ranging conversations that unfolded while we were in Boston. One of the highlights for me with the “master class” in Organizing that we were lucky enough to have Marshall Ganz share with us.

I confess that I am still processing all of the implications of his talk, and strongly encourage you to watch it yourself, but there are a few points that were particularly resonant and may help collective impact practitioners think about some of their work in helpful new ways:

Community organizing is not just about “solving a problem” but it is about developing leadership to achieve structural change over time.

Throughout his talk, Ganz emphasized that much of organizing is about building capacity of members of community through the organizing process. Without building this capacity, the participation of community members is likely to be only temporary and cursory, and residents aren’t necessarily going to be any more empowered to create change in their communities because of their engagement in the initiative. In my experience, this is an area where collective impact collaboratives could learn a lot from organizing … How can backbone teams or others more intentionally build leadership capacity amongst the people with lived experience that are participating in a collective impact initiative?

Emphasizing the power of “story” and “narrative”.

Ganz discussed that one of the powerful components in effective organizing is tapping into emotion, not just cognition, and that “narrative is the language of emotion.” Narrative can help people connect to each other and each other’s purpose in new ways, and can play to the heart , not just the head. In the work of collective impact, we emphasize the importance of the use of “data” with processes like shared measurement… we look at the quantitative data for the progress that is being made on a particular issue like changes in graduation or obesity rates. While tracking this quantitative data is critical, I less frequently see collaboratives lifting up stories and narratives as other forms critical data. These stories can help motivate partners engaged in a collaborative, can bring new people to the table who feel new levels of connection, and can help people understand each other in new and different ways. Surfacing stories of the impact of the work, or the personal narratives of those involved and why they are engaged, seems to be an under-appreciated strategy in collective impact work. In what settings might you more intentionally use stories and narrative to communicate about the work of the initiative?

“Conflict is the midwife of change.”

One of the key points of Ganz’s talk was understanding how conflict can at times be critical to achieving structural, systemic change. Part of the power of collective impact is that it can bring members of community and leaders in formal positions of power together in a shared decision-making table. In some cases, there is great alignment between the interest of those in formal positions of power and other members of community. However, in other situations, those with formal power may have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, while real benefit to the community would occur from creating change… threatening the status quo and leading to conflict. Collective impact initiatives can fall victim to being “conflict averse,” avoiding issues that may threaten the status quo, and focus on more basic, “lowest common denominator” problems but avoid the tough structural issues underlying the problem they are seeking to address. This can lead to important voices being left out of the conversation by leaders in formal positions of power, rather than consistently including those who will benefit from the work and understand the urgency of the change that is needed in the community. What if collective impact partners embraced conflict more, collaboratives consistently included both participants from community and formal positions of power, and worked through those challenges? While some partners may be threatened by this process, without conflict it is often hard to see the change that is truly necessary to achieve an initiative’s goals. So, how might your work be different if you embraced even just a bit more conflict in your work?

While community organizing and collective impact are distinct change strategies, with quite different approaches and contexts in which they make sense, the themes above and others can help us strengthen the way we apply collective impact as an approach to achieving social change.

Related Resource Video and Transcript: Complementary or in Conflict? Community Organizing and Collective Impact


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