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Collective Impact:  Thoughts from Tom Cook

The mission of the Cook Family Foundation is to serve as a resource for the community and as a catalyst for positive change.  Over several decades of funding efforts, we have come to learn that the successes at community improvement are those that involve multiple parties working together for common goals.  That is, we believe in collective impact and are willing to provide grant funding to support it.  These are my thoughts on the topic:

My Experience
For a number of years now, I have been part of many joint efforts to create positive change: in nonprofit organizations, in my community, on the state and regional level, on boards and as a volunteer, as part of multi-funder efforts, and with small groups of people in both intellectual and recreational settings.  The new hot topic is “collective impact,” and it sums of much of what I have learned in my experiences.

For 16 years I was part of a leadership program, and much of what I have learned from that experience can be summed up with the mantra “none of us alone is as smart as all of us together.”  The ideas I have heard presented under the label “collective impact” put a formal structure to this truth.

In Shiawassee County, I have been proud to be involved with the Great Start Collaborative to promote early childhood development.  It is a model of what can be accomplished through collective impact.  Currently, I have played a small role to help initiate a College Access Network to promote post-secondary education in our community. This effort has formally embraced the collective impact model, and I owe them a thank you for first identifying this approach to me.

There are two articles that sum up collective impact. Here are links to them:

I recommend the articles; they are they are relatively short and easy to read; they contain some nice summary components.  Through my experience, here is my interpretation of how to create change through collective impact:

Five Components of Collective Impact

  1. Common Agenda: We all have to agree on where we are going.  It’s important that a diverse group of stakeholders be brought to the table, and it is necessary to work through people’s assumptions, come to a shared understanding of the problem, and develop a common vision for the future.  I have been through this exercise many times, and usually find it stimulating; however, it’s important to put the vision in writing and have people (literally) sign on to it.  It is also critical that the other four components be a part of the process or it will just be a “vision thing.”
  2. Shared Measurement Systems: “What gets measured matters” has been a truth I have encountered often.  The evolution of better data and online systems now makes it much easier for a group to share information. Not only does this promote transparency (another of my values), but also if a group can agree on a set of common metrics, it makes for a powerful tool to achieve the goals embodied in the vision, and promote accountability. A shared measurement system makes collective action real.
  3. Mutually Reinforcing Activities: Collective impact is not about having everyone do the same thing; rather, it is about each organization (or person) doing what they do best, but doing it in a coordinated way in service of the common mission.  Creating change and tackling any entrenched problem is a complex task requiring multiple approaches (e.g. Great Start’s pediatric health initiative requires working with physicians and their systems, coordinating the staffs of community agencies, as well changing parental behaviors; each requires its own expertise).  The key is to get the right people on the bus, have them tackle their part of the problem with the tools they have, but do it in a strategic, coordinated fashion. Asset mapping, i.e. determining what strengths we have as a group, is a great way to start this process.  Data measures, shared feedback and other quality improvement tools are the way to guide, and course-correct, progress.
  4. Continuous Communication: Another frequent topic of conversation in any collective effort seems to be marketing and public relations, and certainly getting out a consistent message is an important part of change.  Of greater importance is making sure that there is good communication between and among all participants.  This requires, importantly, face-to-face meetings among the leaders of all organizations, and frequent use of electronic communication tools.  The former builds trust; the latter creates full awareness.
  5. Backbone Support Organization: I am perhaps most thankful that the articles explicitly name this as a necessary component to having an impact. I have been involved in too many joint efforts that fail because it is assumed that everyone involved can do just a part of what is needed to move the work forward.  A network is important, but something (someone!) has to keep it tied together and give it structure.  To quote, “Creating and managing collective impact requires a separate organization and staff with a very specific set of skills to serve as the backbone for the entire initiative. Coordination takes time, and none of the participating organizations has any to spare.” My new commitment as a funder is to make sure that this staff function is financially supported.

Turf and Tenacity:
a final note comes from several of my colleagues on the reality of carrying out collective impact. Any effective collaborative effort is a messy process that requires a commitment to working (hard), and working through the inevitable issues that arise in relating to other people and other organizations.  We are all proud of our work (or we should be!) and sometimes it is hard to give up some of the control, the credit, or even our funds (i.e. “turf”).  But this can be necessary to make progress.  Anyone engaged in collective impact needs to be conscious of their partners and be committed to working through the tough patches.  Like anything, you need to stick to it to have success.

Funding from the Cook Family Foundation

The Cook Family Foundation wants to initiate, participate and financially support collaborative efforts in Shiawassee County.  The Collective Impact process and its defining components gives us a way to talk about what we can do together to create positive change in the community.  Because each effort is unique given the issues, stakeholders, and timeline, we do not have a formal grant application process.  Rather, we would welcome an e-mail inquiry and the opportunity to have a conversation about how we can work together.

For more information, contact Tom Cook at (989) 725-1621  or [email protected].