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Learning from Experience

3 September 2013 at 8:46 pm
Staff Reporter
Australian social change advocates Dawn O’Neil AM and Kerry Graham speak with Liz Weaver, Vice President of the Tamarack Institute in Canada, to discuss the challenges and lessons learned from the successful scaling of a poverty reduction project using a Collective Impact approach.

Staff Reporter | 3 September 2013 at 8:46 pm


Learning from Experience
3 September 2013 at 8:46 pm

Australian social change advocates Dawn O’Neil AM and Kerry Graham speak with Liz Weaver, Vice President of the Tamarack Institute in Canada, to discuss the challenges and lessons learned from the successful scaling of a poverty reduction project using a Collective Impact approach.

This past fortnight we had the privilege of interviewing Liz Weaver, Vice President of the Tamarack Institute in Canada.  Liz was visiting Australia and NZ speaking on Collective Impact, which she has been living and breathing for more than 7 years.  

Her work in this field began with the highly successful “Reducing Poverty in Hamilton Round Table for Poverty Reduction” in Ontario.  The success of this Ontario work has resulted in the approach being scaled to 100 communities across Canada.  To help grow the field of Collective Impact, the Tamarack Institute captures and disseminates their practice learning.  

Here’s what we learnt from Liz.

How did the Reducing Poverty in Hamilton Round Table for Poverty Reduction start?

The initiative started with the convening of a large cross sectoral round table of 40 people, 10 from each sector and 10 people with a lived experience of poverty. Together they created a vision to make Hamilton the best place to raise a child.

What is the relationship between your work and the FSG published Collective Impact Framework?

The framework developed by FSG is really helpful and in my view the 3 preconditions are just as important as the 5 elements. But in reality the execution can be really challenging difficult work. However if you make the change you want to see for your community then of course the rewards are huge. Key to this process is learning to tolerate ambiguity and live with tension.

There are always tensions in collective impact work – the essence of collective impact is all about tensions. Such as the tension between quick results and the long-term strategy; building trust and having everyone at the table; looking comprehensively at social economic factors at yet still diving deep into particular social issues or giving recognition and leading from behind. These are just some of the tensions that are at the core of this work and it can be very challenging.

Yet at the end of the day – why would you settle for less? This is worthwhile work and settling for less will only result in isolated impact that doesn’t change the future for communities overall.  In my experience, people engage quickly with the idea of Collective Impact but don’t fully realise how hard it’s going to be.

What are the big challenges you see to communities adopting a Collective Impact approach?

The big challenge is that the push to get impact and results can sometimes overtake the systems change that is needed. Impactful change is about policy and systems change on a large scale and this takes longer and is more difficult because it involves wide reaching work such as changing government policy, changing community mindsets or shifting where the energy and focus of community efforts when they are stuck.

What are your biggest learnings from this work?

When I think about collective impact I believe it’s such a powerful idea and way of working yet we can’t underestimate just how hard it is to do successfully. Its all about having persistence and appropriate expectations.

In seeking to answer this question more fully Liz gave us a gift – a book edited by Mark Cabaj and published by the Tamarack Institute called “Cities Reducing Poverty, How Vibrant Communities Are Creating Comprehensive Solutions to the Most Complex Problem of Our Times.”  This book outlines lessons from six case studies on this way of working in community to reduce poverty throughout Canada and are summarised on pages (154-155) as follows:

The rationale for a comprehensive approach to poverty is solid Liz said. Poverty is a messy set of interconnected cause and effect factors that affect and are affected by each other. The ability of someone to secure and maintain a good job, for instance, depends in part on their success to access to safe housing, and their ability to pay for safe and secure housing depends in part on their income. Addressing bundles of factors, therefore, is critical to any successful effort to reduce poverty.

Any coalition interested in the principle of comprehensiveness can embrace the following guidelines to help direct their thinking and action:

  1. Be aware of the four strategies for dealing with the independent cause and effect relationships underlying poverty, as well as their strengths, weaknesses, and enabling conditions. Manage each strategy accordingly.

  2. Employ birds eye and worms eye views in trying to understand the poverty traps of families and neighbourhoods, and then discover what does and not work through a rigorous process of learning by doing.

  3. Navigate and adapt to the contextual barriers and opportunities for comprehensive approaches. The most effective and durable efforts are those that ‘fit’ the landscape in which they operate.

  4. Seek to vertically link programmatic and systemic interventions and horizontally work across different domain areas in an effort to get both scale and depth of impact

  5. Be persistent and realistic. It takes time for comprehensive efforts to bear fruit and many of them do not work out even when a group does all of the right things

  6. Embed a comprehensive approach within a broader effort that focuses on reducing (not alleviating) poverty – a multisector collaboration that builds on local assets and operates based on an ongoing process of learning and change.

In sharing this, Liz stressed that guidelines are not recipes.  She said if we have learned anything in the last 10 years, it is that local groups must craft a comprehensive approach that fits that unique context in which they operate.

We encourage you to check out the Tamarack Institute as a valuable source of knowledge and practice.

About the authors: Dawn O’Neil AM and Kerry Graham have just undertaken a Collective Impact study tour in the USA on behalf of the Centre for Social Impact. Their vision is to translate Collective Impact into the Australian context.

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