What’s Needed for Successful Collective Impact?

To gain more insight into what makes collective impact work, I’ve recently been conducting research and tracking the progress of several organizations working collaboratively in the nonprofit field. What we’ve heard from many respondents that we’ve had the opportunity to interview is that successful collaboration begins even before partnering. To engage in collective impact effectively, there needs to be a culture of collaboration within the organization, and potential partners may need to dramatically shift their own organizational values to align with collaborative values. 

Collaboration Requires a Focus on Similarities, Not on Uniqueness

In the quest for funding, nonprofit leaders are often asked to describe what’s unique to their organization’s value proposition and impact—what sets them apart? This individualistic mindset, which may be an outgrowth of the American spirit of individuality, is not what’s needed in collective impact. To engage in successful collaboration, organizational leaders need to be looking for the similarities, the parallels, and the synergies between them and their prospective partners in the field. They need to be positioning themselves more in terms of what they have in common and what they can provide to one another in leveraging their own resources and information. “A good way to start is by doing it kind of low key. Reach out to other organizations and begin by sharing information, offering help and by being that good neighbor,” one respondent told us, “We offered training, equipment, and information and asked how we could help. They suddenly saw us as friends.” Funders are often in a good position to see the potential synergies between their grantees and can play an important role in bringing together like-minded organizations or convening a group around a complex issue that requires multiple partners’ cooperation.

Collaboration Requires Moving Away From The “Fixed Pie” Mindset

Many times nonprofit leaders have a difficult time letting go of the idea that their potential collaborators are also their competitors. Putting a single organization’s sustainability above the potential impact in the field prevents meaningful participation in collaboration. One interviewee summed up the problem succinctly by saying, “One of the biggest obstacles is fear; the mindset that sharing diminishes your supply and success.” This simply isn’t true; those that succeed realize how to collaborate well and utilize resources effectively. By shifting towards a mindset of honesty and openness, the sector can begin to transition away from the notion of protecting its individual slice of the pie, toward the concept of creating a bigger pie.” Funders can play an important role in this as one of the biggest sources of competition is for money. One funder we interviewed cited a very successful example of using a “green carrot” to bring together previously very competitive peers and align them around a single, well-funded goal that required all of their participation to be realized. The “green carrot” in this case was sustained operating funds for the duration of the organizations’ participation in the collaboration.

Collaboration Needs to Be Incentivized

There is an inherent tension in the way that the nonprofit sector has traditionally been structured to dissuade collective impact. As one interviewee put it, “The system is still not designed to reward collaboration; it’s designed to reward competition. Rewards should be provided for how well you move forward with other people.” Another respondent echoed this sentiment, saying, “If some percentage of your annual evaluation was about how you help your neighbor to move things forward it would be easier.” Part of the problem has to do with what funders expect from their grantees. For funders to get on board, they often request well-defined objectives, timelines, expected impacts and measures for success before an initiative even begins. However, successful collaboration is a long-term process and it rarely ends up looking like the original vision. If success rests on an organization’s ability to embrace change and alter direction as needed, then funders need to approach collective impact with equal openness and willingness to embrace the unexpected.

For collective impact to manifest its potential, there needs to be a dramatic shift in the way that the nonprofit sector values collaboration. Funders are ideally positioned to influence the nonprofit field by incentivizing collaboration, investing in the foundational work of developing shared values, and bringing together potential partners. For more information about supporting and practicing collective impact in the social sector, visit the Collective Impact Forum.

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