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Getting Larger Not for Profits on Board with Collective Impact


Thursday, 10th March 2016 at 8:42 am
Doug Taylor
Social change advocate and Director for Strategic Engagement at Uniting, Doug Taylor, reflects on his experience in collective impact initiatives, on what works for larger Not for Profits.

Thursday, 10th March 2016
at 8:42 am
Doug Taylor


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Getting Larger Not for Profits on Board with Collective Impact
Thursday, 10th March 2016 at 8:42 am

Social change advocate and Director for Strategic Engagement at Uniting, Doug Taylor, reflects on his experience in collective impact initiatives, on what works for larger Not for Profits.

When my partner and I have travelled abroad with our children, we developed a saying to manage their reactions to experiences of cultural shock, “it’s not better or worse just different.”

I’m 12 months into my tenure at Uniting and think that’s probably the best way (granted although a little too relativistic) to describe the experience of transitioning from leading a smaller Not for Profit to being part of a larger one. It’s not better or worse just different, with unique challenges and opportunities.

In my short time I’ve reflected a lot on my previous work on collective impact initiatives and what this might mean for larger NGOs like Uniting. I know that I’m not alone and that there are others who are asking the same questions and making significant contributions to this emerging practice.

My insights are probably not as relevant for these few early adopters but instead the next wave of practitioners from larger organisations who will be charged with the challenge of integrating this practice once it is mainstreamed and delivers on the promise of better social outcomes.

So here are a few reflections for these colleagues in larger Not for Profits and people who are working with them as part of broader collective impact strategies:

  1. To make collective impact happen you do need the “elephants in the room”

I was struck by the Centre for Social Impact’s recent analysis of ACNC data on the Not for Profit sector. To recap the headline, 130 charities earn 50.3 per cent of the sectors income (or further to this, 3.6 per cent of all charities earn 81.8 per cent of revenue). This highlights how critical large NFPs are to the delivery of social services in our community. Therefore, to really deliver on collective impact, which is fundamentally about system redesign, you must get those principally responsible for the delivery of these services “in the room”.

It’s nothing new but these statistics make the point loud and clear, that if you don’t have the “elephants of service delivery in the room” you are really not going to make the change collective impact promises.

The challenge here is not in understanding the criticality of engaging these large NFPs but in actually doing it. It’s not easy, they can be inward focused, self-reliant and perhaps most concerningly, solely consumed by service delivery. To get these larger Not for Profits in the room to do Collective Impact there needs to be a recommitment on their behalf to the basics of Social Change. What do I mean by this and what might happen if this doesn’t occur?

  1. To go forward you have to go back to the basics of social change

For many Not for Profits, and perhaps most larger ones, there needs to be a refocusing on the basics of social change, and without these foundations’ attempts to engage in collective impact will be ad-hoc, episodic and not sustainable. So many Not for Profits are solely preoccupied with service delivery and have no vision for any of the other fundamental elements of social change like Community Development or Societal Advocacy.

I’m sure you’ll find many organisations with nice mission statements that talk about the importance of these elements but dig under the surface and look for what’s invested in this work and the level of rigour applied through Outcomes Frameworks and Theories of Change and you’ll likely be somewhat disappointed. This is why collective impact is so often a disconnect with many larger NFPs, there’s invariably no internal framework or strategy to accommodate such work.

In response to this problem I see a number of NFPs committing themselves to collective impact projects, which is fantastic, but my concern is that without doing the hard work of shifting the rest of the core business of service delivering to have a broader vision of its function, such projects will have limited internal impact. It’s akin to what corporate social responsibility has become to many corporations, a bolted on project that might make a difference but do little to the core business.

We’ve been grappling with this at Uniting and have recommitted ourselves to the Bronfenbrenner’s Social Ecological Framework and his emphasis on creating change with individuals, families, communities and at the structural level. This has meant being more intentional about this work and developing some simple frameworks to engage colleagues internally, such as the framework below which we use to describe our work in “enlivening communities”.

doug graphic 2

This foundation will help us make the most of collective impact opportunities and ensures it is seen as front and centre and not something marginal. It keeps the broader community at the forefront of our mind as we deliver services and reminds our people that working at a community level is part of the brief.

It also helps us fully leverage our large service delivery footprint to work at a community and societal level. Without some solid social change foundations in place, engaging large NFPs is still possible but it will be unstable and subject to changes to the whim of key personnel and other shifting priorities.

  1. How to engage larger NFPs in collective impact

In a perfect world, these foundations would be in place in all larger NFPs which would ensure active engagement in collective impact strategies. We don’t live in that world so the work ahead is that combination of “flying the plane and building it at the same time”. In other words laying the foundations whilst being “strategically opportunistic”.

But what does this mean in practice?

  • Engaging executives and non-executives in discussion about organisational mission and the core elements of social change. Essentially making the case for a broader vision and not just the delivery of services.
  • Involve people from across your organisation in the development of frameworks that will legitimise the work of collective impact. Do this development work but don’t let “perfect be the enemy of the good”. It must always be a work in progress.
  • For those engaging large NFPs from the outside, it’s critical that you have a twofold engagement strategy. That is, you have to work with the local team in a community but also engage at the executive level so that the investment of resources in collective impact can be validated and also because you will need senior engagement should there be any changes to practice in the future. In reality you can’t change a large NFP, or any NFP in fact, from the outside. To create change you will need to find internal partners who you can support so they can lead the charge.
  • Make the most of opportunities to participate in collective impact but don’t let them become a distraction to this larger work outlined above. Instead leverage these opportunities to force internal conversation to learn and develop.
  • Avoid the excuse that many raise to not participate in collective impact, that is “we need to get our colleagues collaborating internally before we work with others”. This excuse is a surefire way to do nothing. Sometimes working with others externally can force internal collaboration.
  • Do some mapping of what your organisation is currently doing with collective impact strategies. You’ll be surprised at the many ways in which you are part of collective impact initiatives, the simple fact is that in large organisations there are many tentacles into communities and much of the work goes under the radar.

So there’s a short reflection on making collective impact work for larger NFPs after one year of working at Uniting. I hope it’s a useful contribution to this important work and helpful for my colleagues that are part of larger NFPs or are charged with trying to engage them.

About the author: Doug Taylor is the Director for Strategic Engagement at Uniting and was previously CEO of United Way Australia. He has built a 20 year professional career in the social sector out of his passion for social change, as well as an active life in volunteering. His interests are manifest in membership on the Boards of the School for Social Entrepreneurs, the Australian Centre for Social Innovation, the Centre for Social Impact Advisory Board and as a proud Trustee of the Steve Lawrence Social Innovation Fund. He tweets at @dougtayloruw and writes a blog.



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