Strive’s Jeff Edmondson explains the power and the pitfalls of collective impact

By Rebekah Seder, Program Manager

All of us working in the social sector are concerned about the impact of our work. But, too often we work in isolation from others focused on the same problems or serving the same populations, stuck in our own silos. An enormous amount of public and private resources get thrown at issues without any real change — the so-called “spray and pray” approach. What if funders, nonprofits, government, and others concerned about a particular problem in their community came together around a common agenda, understood how their work aligned, adopted the same goals, and committed to doing their own work in the most effective ways possible?

This is the basic spirit of the “collective impact” approach. Jeff Edmondson, who spoke to local philanthropic and nonprofit leaders last week at our second Brightest Minds event, knows the ins and outs of collective impact better than anybody. As head of the Strive Partnership in Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, he led a cradle-to-career initiative that has seen remarkable gains in student achievement, and now, as head of the Strive Network, he advises partnerships around the country on how to start and sustain effective collective impact initiatives.

The collective impact approach can be adopted for diverse issues in diverse places. There is no specific model to be followed. Rather, it is a framework with four key elements:

A shared community vision: All involved must agree on the specific goals that the initiative is working toward, and how they are going to move the dial on them. Choosing four or five outcomes that everyone can align around, assessing where you stand now in relation to those outcomes, and figuring out how to most effectively achieve them is difficult, but necessary to effect change. As Edmondson said, paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln, you can’t find true north without a compass.

Evidence-based decision making: Decisions have to be guided by data. Data ensures transparency and accountability, and allows initiatives to report to the larger community where they are relative to their goals. Even more importantly, using data effectively allows stakeholders to see what approaches and interventions are working, and what needs to improve.

Collaborative action: Stakeholder engagement is key, and this is where collective impact can be especially hard and messy. Convincing funders, practitioners, and government to be transparent with their data – particularly when the data shows that things aren’t going right – requires a high level of trust among everyone involved.

Investment and sustainability: Moving a cross-sector agenda forward requires committed staff to serve as the, in Edmondson’s words, “chief cat herder.” A backbone organization is necessary to keep everyone on track, provide data analysis, and to serve as facilitator.

The widely read Stanford Social Innovation Review articles  about collective impact that highlight the work of the Strive Partnership, he says, are a “sanitized version of reality.” Creating the civic infrastructure to take on entrenched issues requires a high level of trust, a willingness to acknowledge and learn from past failures, and deep engagement and support from respected leaders. Collective impact isn’t simple or easy, but it does hold incredible potential to change our communities for the better.

You can check out Jeff Edmondson’s slides here.

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