“In any given week, you could go to three meetings and hear the same report three times.”
“Too many people are coming to us with too many asks.”
These are some of the recurring sentiments that prompted the leaders of collective impact initiatives in Northern Kentucky to ask, “What would it look like if we realigned?” The article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “Aligning Collective Impact Initiatives” (written by two of my colleagues at the Forum for Youth Investment), chronicles the process those leaders used to consolidate the goals, strategies and commitments of multiple education initiatives under one backbone organization.
The case study offers lessons for any community where multiple coalitions are working to improve lives. What I’d like to drive home is not only that such alignment is possible, but that it’s required.
The Kentucky leaders pushed through difficult discussions and made tough decisions to align a few initiatives. Can you imagine the challenges of aligning the efforts of 10 or 20 initiatives focused on overlapping but distinct goals – such as improving the economic health of a community, increasing high school graduation rates and reducing crime?
We do imagine that and you should. Because cross-sector, cross-system, cross-issue collaboration is critical to achieving the kind of community change that collective impact efforts aim for.
The Forum got into the collaboration alignment business more than a decade ago, when we made it a part of our intake protocol to ask coalitions that had hired us (to help them broaden their goals, strategies or partnerships) how they connected to other coalitions or initiatives in their communities. This is basic to taking a “big picture approach” to community change: You ask, “Who else should or could be involved?”, then “How?” Northern Kentucky leaders were aching to do this; we provided tools and technical assistance to guide the process.
Typically, however, the initial responses of coalitions amounted to something I call benignrespect: “We respect their work, but they’re focused on dropout prevention and we’re focused on substance abuse among all age groups.” “We have some members in common.” “We worked with them to a push for more afterschool programs last year.”
Answering “How to Align?”
I get goose bumps when I hear John Kania encourage us to understand that collective impact is the end result of collective seeing, learning and doing. In my experience, initiative and coalition overlap is one of the biggest blind spots among leaders working for community change. I hope that those who read the story about aligning initiatives in Northern Kentucky come away with a commitment to tackle this dilemma back home and with ideas about how to do it.
Over the years, the Forum has developed coaching, training and tools to help independent coalition leaders do collective “seeing and learning” in order to accelerate their collective “doing.” Because the Collective Impact Forum is a place to share ideas and experiences, I offer some of the Forum’s alignment strategies below – not because they are ours, but because we hear that leaders get the idea of collective impact but beg for concrete guidance to help them achieve it. We hope these examples can illuminate the dimly lit space in which community collaborations multiply and bump but don’t connect.
Regardless of what tools you use, these tasks are necessary for initiatives to align their work:
- Map your moving trains – The “trains” are the multiple initiatives whose work touches on the many issues that fall under the umbrella of your big picture approach. We use checklists to collect basic “footprint” information on the goals, targets, strategies and members of up to 50 coalitions and initiatives. This provides a starter database that is used to show gaps and overlaps, which in turn is used to identify common ground and set the stage for change.
- Analyze and document the overlaps – Conduct document reviews and interviews about existing plans and efforts. Use the answers to create detailed comparison charts to inform discussions among a small number of coalitions or initiatives (usually under 10) interested in aligning their efforts.
- Align goals and strategies – Facilitate exercises among coalitions to help them “see and learn” how their different goals and strategies fit together. The next step is to see what goals and strategies can be combined, along with what new ones might be added.
- Negotiate the parameters of the “umbrella” partnership – Be upfront about the need for compromise if the group decides to create an umbrella partnership under which the individual coalitions come together. Clarify the priorities for organizing the aligned work by getting agreement on such factors as the population focus, issue focus, geographic scope, resource blending, and governance structure of the partners. Use pretested lists and survey/interview questions to expedite the conversation.
- Assess backbone candidate capacities – Anticipate that one of the most contentious discussions among a group of leaders who have backbone capacities and experience is deciding who is going to provide backbone supports for the umbrella group. We implement a blind survey to gather third-party perceptions about the capacity of interested organizations to perform these functions.