Like many others, a lightbulb went off when I read Kania and Kramer’s 2011 article on collective impact. Having worked in the non-profit sector for many years, I often bumped up against issues and barriers that were bigger than any individual, group, organization, or government department. Collective impact seemed like a way to bring people and organizations together and finally shift outcomes related to tough social issues like homelessness, harms related to substance use, and violence against women.
In those early days, I even dreamt about the idea of a local collective impact umbrella association, where local collective impact initiatives could share experiences and practices as they worked on moving the needle on tough issues.
I was also moved by Etmanski’s book Impact: Six Patterns to Grow Your Social Innovation – where the ideas of “working with allies, adversaries, and strangers,” “mobilizing your economic power,” and “advocating with empathy” resonated deeply. Peter Block’s book Belonging: The Structure of Community also pushed my thinking on how to build community.
Perhaps most importantly, I was struck by Vu Le’s 2013 and 2015 criticisms of collective impact. One of Le’s criticisms was related to unfair resource distribution in communities where collective impact initiatives took large proportions of funding and energy away from front-line service delivery. Le’s other main criticism was that collective impact initiatives often ignored questions of privilege and power when it came to the involvement of, and leadership by people of colour and other disadvantaged individuals and groups most affected by tough social issues.
Keeping all of this in mind, I did what I could to stay engaged while working full-time, raising a family, etc., but it was difficult to keep momentum from off the side of my desk.
However, the dream stayed alive because I was constantly confronted with intractable barriers to social issues and deteriorating social conditions despite best efforts in the community and beyond. I knew we could do better.
Then while unemployed in spring 2019, I attended a webinar about working with “mental models” to advance systems change. What we perceive and believe can be one of the most difficult yet potentially transformative ‘conditions’ that hold tough social issues in place. Based on FSG’s Water of Systems Change model, Julie Sweetland (Frameworks Institute) presented research on the best ways to shift mental models. It was another breakthrough moment. In FSG’s definition, “…systems change is about shifting the conditions that hold a problem in place.” It was this notion of shifting underlying conditions that inspired the name ‘Condition Shift.’
With the fundamental notions of equity and collective impact always in mind, the spring 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising, and the evidence-based inequities and inequalities of the global pandemic, I went searching for more ideas on how to do this work well. That’s when I came across Wolfe et al.’s 2017 article Collaborating for Equity and Justice: Moving Beyond Collective Impact. The article offers a critical, evidence-based perspective on collective impact as a silver bullet to addressing tough social issues. In the article, the authors point out that collective impact-like work has been occurring (and studied, written about) long before the 2011 article on ‘collective impact’ existed. The authors state that the collective impact approach can be an over-simplified and privileged view of how networks, coalitions, and collaboratives engage in effective social change-making efforts. Wolfe et al. echo Le’s notion that equity (and ultimately equality) and community-based approaches should drive the collaborative agenda – especially if lasting change is desired.
Which collective impact/collaborative/coalition-based initiatives have moved the needle on tough social issues in a lasting way? Have these kinds of initiatives brought us closer to social equality or perpetuated inequalities in terms of resource allocation and decision-making? Finding answers to these kinds of questions will be a lifelong journey of practicing, writing, and reading about this work. I am looking forward to it.
Photo credit: Jennifer Garland, The Mane Intent