Now that you’ve taken the first step to greater social impact by identifying the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve, and having worked directly with the community in need to solve it, what’s next?

I’ll start with a question. How many nonprofits do you think there are in the US?

According to the National Center for Charitable Statistics (NCCS), there are more than 1.5 million nonprofit organizations registered in the U.S. 

That means there are 1.5 million organizations out there trying to tackle some of the same issues you are and chances are you’re going to need to work hand-in-hand with at least a few of them to drive the impact you want. In fact, I’d argue it’s nearly impossible to go it alone if you’re trying to tackle something as complex as poverty or climate change, for example. 

Add to that, that you’ll likely need help from the government early for buy-in and later when it comes to driving policy change (we’ll get to that later), and it becomes clear that strong partnerships are going to be integral to achieving your organization’s vision and mission.

So, how do you work most effectively with others to drive the impact you want?

Step 2. Collective Impact for Strong Alliances

One of the prevailing methodologies over the last decade or so for driving results is collective impact. Wherever you live, take a look around and you’ll run into a collective impact initiative, including organizations like Strive Together for holistic educational outcomes around the US, SOAR and FAHE for reinvigorating the Appalachian region, and health equity in southwest Washington through the Healthy Living Collaborative. It has become so prevalent in fact, that there is even an organizing body called the Collective Impact Forum, with backing from the who’s who of public and private foundations around the world like the Bill & Melinda Gates, Ford and Knight foundations.

Though there is much research to do to prove the model out, and though the approach doesn’t come without criticism, we still believe it has some foundational elements that can help set you up for future success. You can read more about the detailed components of the framework from the forum and in publications like Stanford Social Innovation Review,  but here I’ll try to give you a few thoughts on each of the five conditions and some other methodologies/tools you can leverage to hopefully increase your chances of success.

So, let’s get into it.

Common Vision 

When you start identifying partners, you should be asking yourself if you and your potential partners are working toward the same goals and vision. What does the world look like when you get there? Even within your own organization this can become convoluted, watered down and/or forgotten. So, make sure you have that vision articulated up front, built into your daily processes, and formalized so you can refer to it often.  Great organizations and partnerships find a way to integrate their vision into their work everyday.

And, because that vision can seem insurmountable, we find that organizations leveraging techniques like Story Mapping from Agile Scrum, increase their likelihood of success by breaking it down into digestible chunks with a clear plan of attack. The goal in this upfront planning is to answer basic questions like what needs to be done, when does it need to be done, and who is going to do it. This approach  is great when you are working with other organizations and distributed teams.

Shared Measurement Systems and Supporting Data 

How will you know if you and your partners are successful? It’s imperative to set measurable goals upfront, but that alone is not enough. You need to identify the metrics and data needed,  who is accountable for collecting it, how it’s going to be collected, where you are going to track it, and when you are going to report on results. Not to mention it’s imperative to determine what you’ll share with your partners. This way you can hold all parties accountable to hitting those agreed upon metrics and reporting on it to the alliance to ensure you are staying on track.

One point of note from our end. As more and more funders look for impact, how do you get beyond surface level metrics (numbers served) and differentiate yourself in the market? There always seems to be a race to the top, but we challenge you to push past that and look for quality outcomes.  For example, at a soup kitchen, you can push past total number of meals served and look for the lives you’ve changed. How many people no longer needed a free meal because of you and your partners work? That’s a story with a data point that gets you beyond the numbers, and into real impact/outcomes. 

The best are doing this by leveraging customer relationship management (CRM) technology like Salesforce to not only stay in touch with their donors, but also to keep track of those they serve to tell a more complete story of their impact.

Mutually Reinforcing Activities

We liken mutually reinforcing activities to conducting a symphony orchestra. How do you ensure you benefit from the collective expertise of your partners to make beautiful music? It’s about the sum of the parts adding up to something greater than simply adding together the siloed efforts of each of your partners. Most importantly, great partners add layers of solutions to your own for more comprehensive outcomes to overcome the complexities of something like homelessness. 

We find project management tools like Asana and Trello to be particularly beneficial when it comes to coordinating work when there are lots of people involved and hand-offs need to be seamless. It’s also great for holding your partners accountable as you work towards common goals. As with any technology, there is some change management involved, but look for ways to customize tools you use to keep your team on track and make it your own for adoption.

Continuous and Open Communication

How will you and your partners stay up to speed and on track? Most importantly, how will you build trust with your partners?  This is where regular, in-person check-ins come into play. Develop your cadence and decide how often you should meet in person and how to communicate in-between meetings (what happens in the case of emergency?). This is also an ideal time to keep the community engaged by inviting them to join your meetings and update sessions so you can get direct feedback on how it’s going.

It’s easy to gloss over this point.  We are more connected than ever, with smartphones in our hands at all times and numerous technologies like Slack and Teams to communicate in real-time. But the reality is, without an agreed upon communication plan and without a commitment to meet regularly in-person with your executive level staff, the likelihood of success decreases.

Backbone Support

Lastly, and what might be considered the most controversial part, the collective impact model calls for backbone support provided by an independent organization to hold your alliance efforts together. There are organizations and consultants who specialize in providing backbone services, while some major nonprofit players like United Way are also stepping up to the challenge and becoming anchor institutions in communities across the U.S.

Though the jury is still out, we’ll leave you with a few thoughts from our perspective. 

Someone must take the lead in coordinating the alliance each and every-day, whether that be internal or external, and regardless you will need a plan of succession if that person leaves the alliance.  We believe it will take someone with facilitation skills to help overcome disagreement, someone with skin in the game, be that financial and/or procedural, to overcome hurdles that will be faced. And, it will take someone that can hold others accountable, with some level of authoritative autonomy to make tough decisions when consensus needs to be reached and you need to move forward. 

What do you think?

So, what are your thoughts on collective impact? Is it working for you?  Are you looking to implement something like it for your organization? As always, you can reach out to me personally at loren(at)impaktfel.com to get the conversation going and letting me know what you think.

Checklist: Step 2. Collective Impact for Strong Alliances

  • Common Agenda and Vision 
  • Shared Measurement Systems and Supporting Data 
  • Mutually Reinforcing Activities
  • Continuous and Open Communication
  • Backbone Support