Collective Impact – Needed Reform for the Social Sector
30 August 2012 at 10:14 am
OPINION: Let’s get real and stop thinking we can change the world working in silos says Social Sector Leadership Development consultant and former Lifeline and Beyondblue CEO, Dawn O'Neil.
There will always be those who are disadvantaged, who need social capital and will need the social support of their community. All civilised communities recognise this and have worked to provide a safety net for those who are vulnerable.
During the Great Depression in Australia for example, wealthier families often took it upon themselves to operate soup kitchens in their own towns where the poor and unemployed gathered and the ‘ladies’ of the suburb gave out soup. These types of social services have evolved and expanded considerably since then however in principle it is still community joining together to deliver a social benefit.
Governments will never be wholly capable for caring for all disadvantages and neither should they. We do have a social responsibility to care for each other as part of our role in the human family. This impulse of care is why we have thousands of Social Sector or Not for Profit (NFP) community based organisations all over the world. Typically, an individual or a group see a need and are motivated to meet it either as an individual or collectively.
There is no lack of this compassion and motivation in Australian culture however it is the way we organise the response to care that needs a complete rethink, particularly in light of what is sure (so we are told by governments) to be more difficult economic times as our population ages.
Those with a passion do not always do their homework in the way a business venture might, by market research or needs analysis, and in a way neither should they. It is human to see someone in pain and merely respond. To be truly effective though, we need more than just passion and motivation to effectively utilise the donations and scarce resources available for social good to ensure we don’t duplicate, misdirect or cause unintended harm through our efforts.
We need to apply as sophisticated – if not more sophisticated market research and analysis tools and intelligence to this vital work. We need to see much more adaptation of proven business systems and tools in the NFP sector. This has largely not occurred because it has been beyond the budgets of most NFPs. However, I believe we must be smarter and find a way to get this kind of investment into the NFP sector.
One way this could be achieved is by having organisations funded to do this kind of market research and analysis on behalf of each sector that targets a particular area of disadvantage or community need. In addition, they could monitor and measure how effective the efforts in this sector were.
If we did this well resources could be better directed to where they were most needed. This could be a role for peak bodies that currently largely focus their efforts on membership services, research and advocacy but generally don’t play a role in directing service delivery in terms of geography or other access points.
It is time we stood back and looked at where and how we are directing our efforts and rethink our business models. Otherwise, I fear that we will still be bemoaning the fact that there are service gaps and overlaps in 20 years time.
I am not calling for more government control but I believe it is time for the NFP sector to stand back and consider some alternative approaches that can more effectively harness our efforts and resources rather than continuing to rely on goodwill and hard work alone.
We need to be smarter about how we go about our work. Resources are going to get tighter in these ‘fiscally constrained times’ and expectations from donors and funders will be higher. We need a more collaborative, cleverer approach that will enable individual NFPs to see the needs more clearly and then be able to measure and track the results of their efforts.
There is one such a model in the USA described in the Stanford Innovation Review of 2011 called Collective Impact (Kania & Kramer, 2011). In this model the ‘backbone’ organisation provides oversight by performing the needs analysis, recommending the funding and then measuring the social benefit by intensive data collection and analysis.
“ … collective impact, the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem. Collaboration is nothing new. The social sector is filled with examples of partnerships, networks, and other types of joint efforts. But collective impact initiatives are distinctly different. Unlike most collaborations, collective impact initiatives involve a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants.” Read more here and here.
The beauty of this is that each organisation has a totally transparent view of what they have been able to achieve plus what they could do to tailor and make adjustments to what it is they do. Of course, there would be some sectors where this model would not be recommended but there are many where this kind of ‘helicopter view’ is desperately needed.
Over the past 25 years of working in and around the NFP sector in Australia I have seen many organisations that lose sight of their original mission and end up with ‘mission creep’. Or, perhaps worse, begin to think that they exist to serve the staff or volunteers rather than the clients.
This is much more common than we in this sector would like to admit and usually results in precious resources going where they aren’t needed or into activities where outcomes aren’t as effective as they could be.
Clearly some kind of transparent analysis and measurement, in the form of ongoing data collection and analysis needs to be a part of the way we do business in the future. A major barrier to this being prioritised has been a (in my view) misguided belief that NFP’s don’t need or cannot justify spending funds on research, data collection and analysis, as this would be seen as taking funds away from those they were helping.
The fact is though, that the Australian NFP sector already spends a large amount of public donations on administration of the collected funds. According to several sources, seven large Australian charities spend from 25 to 60 per cent on these costs.
A single organisation that could perform this important task would see the organisations freed to spend time on their core business plus be in no doubt as to the effectiveness of what they are doing.
In Australia we are beginning to talk about collective impact. The Centre for Social Impact has been leading the way in this discussion with people like Doug Taylor from United Way and Elena Douglas in their excellent articles; Rock stars in Nashville and Collective Impact – A New Approach to Community Collaboration;
“Collective impact involves large scale social change outcomes that require broad cross?sector coordination rather than isolated interventions by individual organisations. Collective impact is based on having a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication and backbone support organisations (Kania & Kramer, 2011).”
It is a promising start and these discussions need to be held with the major Australian charities. How to achieve this or ‘get the ball rolling’, as we say is of major importance and something I am looking at ways to support.
About the author: Dawn O’Neil is the Managing Director of Dawn O'Neil & Associates and Consultant in Social Sector Leadership Development; Community Mental Health and Suicide Prevention. She has a strong governance, strategic & organisational development and change management background. O’Neil has sat on both Not for Profit, community and public sector boards for over 20 years and has participated in a number of key Federal Government (Health and Ageing) Ministerial committees where she has contributed to social and health policy.