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Cross-sector Collaboration Lessons Learned: Implementing a Powerful Tool for Social Change

I was fortunate to spend the last week with 23 other cross-sector leaders who are doing amazing things – everything from changing how PepsiCo sources its fruits in order to benefit local economies and increase the nutritional content of their drinks, to scaling an evidence-based afterschool program throughout the country, to developing and disseminating an exciting model for community organizing to build resilience. We are all part of the inaugural class of Cross-Sector Leadership Fellows, a partnership of the Presidio Trust and the White House Office of Social Innovation and Civic Participation. After a week’s worth of collaborating and learning with this team of innovators, my brain is overflowing with lessons learned about cross-sector collaboration and I wanted to share a few. Mailbox

  • People’s attention is seriously divided. Getting access to the attention of your partners keeps getting harder and harder. Email inboxes are overflowing with messages we should have read, twitter is feeding us more messages then we will ever read and most of us never get around to opening email attachments. Yet, cross-sector work depends on good communication. This means when we’re convening a cross-sector partnership we need to be prepared to spend face time and phone time catching people up and making sure we hear their needs.
  • A neutral party who can help surface competing agendas and needs is critical. This can be the facilitator, a developmental evaluator, a cross-sector coach, etc. Whatever their title, this neutral third party is a critical part of the process.  All of the partners need a confidential, unbiased partner, someone they can talk to – including some venting – and begin to break down the problem and figure out how they can be part of the solution.
  • UntitledSolutions aren’t created in one big swoop, but piece by piece over time. When’s the last time someone developed a big visionary plan to solve a truly complex problem, implemented it, and said at the end of the day, “Yes, we nailed it!  No changes needed!”?  Never.  Because tough problems wouldn’t be tough if we knew how to solve them. Testing out different ideas, trying to fix pieces of the problem, and evaluating the impact are all part of tackling the complex problems facing society. However, we need to make sure the small tests along the way are directly related to where we want to go in the big picture.
  • Never lose focus on the change you’re trying to cause in the world. Every meeting with partners, one-on-one conversation, email, and newsletter needs to keep the meaningful difference that is driving the work front and center. Not only does it inspire us, but it helps us figure out how to make it through all the competing demands on our resources and conflicting expectations. After all, we wouldn’t be doing the tough work of cross-sector collaboration if we weren’t passionate about changing the world to be a better place.

I will continue to blog about the lessons I’m learning on this cross-sector journey, including what we learned spending a day with some of the federal government’s most innovative leaders, our lessons from visiting the DC Central Kitchen, and what one can learn from watching cross-sector work in action that is triggered by leaders in corporations, non-profits, local government, federal government, and small businesses.

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Leaving the Abstract Behind: What Collective Impact Really Means

Collective ImpactFrom reducing infant mortality to addressing climate change, Collective Impact work seems to be everywhere these days.  At Spark, we’ve been excited to get involved with Collective Impact efforts at all levels, from facilitating the planning process to being the backbone to providing evaluation support early in initiatives and in the later years as well.

Many of our partners are embracing the concept – in the most basic terms, Collective Impact is big picture cooperation that results in smarter efforts to get at the root of complex problems. More broadly, Collective Impact recognizes that, as we become ever-more-connected, isolated approaches to problems may not be enough to create true change.

Yet, is it just me or does Collective Impact continue to feel pretty abstract until you’re in the thick of it?

I recently had the opportunity to be a table facilitator at an event hosted by The Civic Canopy where a lot of the discussion centered on how Collective Impact could be used by organizations looking to create sustainable and meaningful change. It got me thinking about how to talk about Collective Impact and the elements that are necessary for success in more concrete ways…

Collective Impact is not a new project.

  • It’s engaging organizations in a collective effort to take their existing work and align it around a shared agenda. For example, organizations may identify that they are all serving the same set of kids, but if they are more strategic in how they recruit new kids into their programs, they can collectively extend their reach and decrease the duplication of effort.

Collective Impact is not top down.

  • It only works when the organization(s) providing support, such as convening partners and keeping track of progress, are responding to the needs of others, rather than driving the direction themselves. That means all the rest of us who are participating have to be very active at joining in the dialogue and shaping the direction. For new backbone organizations, there is usually a lot of capacity building that needs to happen as staff switch from being doers and leaders to supporters and facilitators.

Collective Impact has small wins before it has big ones.

  • Systemic change is a great goal and it is often the reason we come together in a Collective Impact effort. But if we wait to declare success until we fix the system, we’re going to run out of steam! Small wins matter too – did we advocate for passage of a bill that will direct new resources into our system?  That’s a win!  Did we experiment with a new approach in one community and evaluate to see if it’s scalable?  That’s a win!

In Collective Impact, we get it wrong before we get it right.

  • Because of the multidimensional nature of both Collective Impact and the problems it is employed to address, there is no singular “right” approach or recipe that guarantees success every time.  That means every time we plan, at best we’re going to get it only partially right and sometimes we might be flat out wrong. It takes a mindset shift to realize that’s okay. It also takes an adaptive, flexible evaluation to help figure out why we didn’t get it right and design our next step.

Packing up at the end of the Civic Canopy day, reflecting back on conversations about Spark’s work in Collective Impact, I thought about how powerful this framework can be and how it speaks to Spark’s core mission of creating meaningful change.  There is still so much work to be done in this arena, and we’re excited to be along for the ride!

Click here to learn more about Collective Impact and Spark’s approach.