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Check Your Leadership Lens Before Embarking on Collective Impact

By Risa Wilkerson on June 15th, 2016

“We think we want to do Collective Impact. How do we get started?”

When asked this question by a staff of a nonprofit organization striving to improve the health of their community, we paused. “Why do you want to use the Collective Impact Model?” we asked. [1]  They answered that funders and others were talking about it and they thought its purpose aligned with their intentions. This provided the opportunity to first examine the current status of their partnership, as well as their community’s context.

When passionate change agents seek time-tested structures for their partnership, they should keep in mind key elements needed for a community-level collaborative to succeed in creating lasting change. In other words, this is not just about organizing around five key activities or a particular pre-determined structure. While using a model to guide your approach is important, lasting change also requires an understanding of community context; strategies that improve policies, systems, and the built environment; and the ability to ground every aspect of the work in essential practices. We suggest that people interested in addressing community-level change start by understanding these key elements.

First, every community has its own culture, assets, history of achievement, and challenges on which to build. When leaders fully recognize and understand these unique community settings and have the facilitative skills to navigate related discussions, strategies and tactics can better align with various dynamics at play. Ignoring community context disrespects the lived experiences of community residents and undermines opportunities to leverage assets and tie into community values. Regardless of the model being used, leaders should take the time to recognize, honor, and account for community context at every stage of the work.

Second, an effective leader knows the critical importance of addressing policies, systems, and environments. This is a longer-term strategy to ensure that communities are places where healthy behaviors are convenient, safe, and routine. Strategies that emphasize changing larger systems can lead to sustainable impacts. When communities have an integrated web of supports—including mutually reinforcing policies, programs, environments, funding, and organizational practices—healthy change strategies are institutionalized.

Finally, leading collaborative efforts requires the ability to infuse every stage of the process with six essential practices:

  • Health Equity Focus—An intentional focus on reducing health disparities in communities by eliminating avoidable and unjust health inequities affected by social, economic, and environmental conditions.
  • Community Engagement—An intentional process of empowering adult and/or youth residents to authentically engage in and contribute to the planning and implementation of solutions within their own communities.
  • Facilitative Leadership—A capacity-building and management approach that shares power and influence among engaged partners in order to produce actions and outcomes that are generated by and best serve a group rather than one or two strong or vocal leaders.
  • Sustainable Thinking—A consideration of the social, environmental, and economic assets and opportunities that are necessary for successful and lasting community change.
  • Culture of Learning—Ingrained, ongoing opportunities in a community to improve effectiveness and impact through partnerships, continual assessment of initiatives, and collaborative sharing and learning.
  • Strategic Communication—A goal-driven method of communication that aligns messages and tactics with communities’ priorities and audiences’ values, recalibrates based on measurable results, and strives for an evolving, two-way dialogue.

The ability to bring all of these lenses to the work simultaneously may require the skills of multiple leaders working in tandem. We’ve coached hundreds of communities to collaborate and use these elements, and we have witnessed how building these skills early and continuously strengthens outcomes and grows capacity for addressing any social change agenda that communities value. No matter what model they use.

[1] Note: If your community is considering the Collective Impact Model, be aware of the ongoing conversation around improving components of the model for true and lasting change. Thoughtful critiques like those written by Vu Le and Tom Wolff should be read alongside reflections on the vital importance of bringing an equity lens to the model. I especially like PolicyLink’s “The Soul of Collective Impact” and how they list five elements that are essential to the success of backbone organizations and, by extension, the collective impact endeavor.

Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

Action-driven optimist, abundance thinker, and simplicity seeker.