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Collective impact – When theory becomes practice

12 December 2019 at 8:38 am
Andrew Curtis
Dr Andrew Curtis from The Dragonfly Collective sums up how collective impact works in practice – in this case in Canada.

Andrew Curtis | 12 December 2019 at 8:38 am


Collective impact – When theory becomes practice
12 December 2019 at 8:38 am

Dr Andrew Curtis from The Dragonfly Collective sums up how collective impact works in practice – in this case in Canada.

Back in 2014 I started a short-term piece of work with a small charity in north London. The CEO was the founder. The charity was running at a significant loss and the founder was topping up the finances with family money. 

There was no doubt that there was commitment and passion. The problem was that what this charity was offering was the same as numerous other charities within a three-kilometre radius. They were all competing for participants in their programmes and all competing for the same ever-dwindling pot of money.

My suggestion that this charity should collaborate with other charities doing the same thing was met with disbelief and hostility. And yet collaboration is exactly what’s needed. 

You only have to look as far as the UK charity register for the proof. The UK has 166,854 registered charities. Eighty-two per cent of these are categorised as either micro or small – 47 per cent with an annual income of less than £10,000 (A$19,000). All of them, large or small, compete for the same charity pound.

Meanwhile, poverty in the UK is trending downwards. More than 14 million people, including 4.5 million children, live below the poverty line in the UK. The war on poverty continues, while charities compete with each other to end it. 

Despite lots of activity by lots of charities, poverty remains stable. It has not gone away and does not even appear to be in retreat.

Meanwhile, others in other parts of the world are winning the war on poverty, not through a disintegrated, fragmented competitive strategy, but with a multisector comprehensive approach called “collective impact”.

In September, we published two articles in Pro Bono Australia under the broad heading of What can collective impact offer, based on our research in the UK. Collective impact is a framework for “collective practice” that moves beyond traditional collaboration. And it works. 

As David Brooks writes in the New York Times, according to recently released data, between 2015 and 2017, Canada reduced its official poverty rate by at least 20 per cent. Roughly 825,000 Canadians were lifted out of poverty in those years, giving the country its lowest poverty rate in history.

How did Canada do it?

Brooks notes that while the Canadian economy has been decent over recent years, it has not been robust enough to explain these outcomes. Instead, one major factor is that Canadians have organised their communities differently. They used the collective impact methodology to fight poverty.

The collective impact approach stands in stark contrast to how Brooks describes the usual route to poverty alleviation in America: everything is fragmented, with a bevy of public and private programs doing their own thing. In one town there may be four food pantries, which don’t really know one another well. The people working in these programs have their heads down, because it’s exhausting enough just to do their own work. 

This is compounded by the common model of one-donor-funding-one-program. Different programs compete for funds. They justify their existence using randomised controlled experiments, in which researchers try to pinpoint one input that led to one positive output. The foundation heads, city officials and social entrepreneurs go to a bunch of conferences, but these conferences don’t have much to do with one another. 

Every day, they give away the power they could have used if they did mutually reinforcing work together to change the whole system. What Brooks describes is detailed in the recent Economist essay Poverty In America. Sound familiar, whether you are in the US, the UK or Australia?

Brooks notes that “in Canada it’s not like that”. Why? As Brooks writes:

“About 15 years ago, a disparate group of Canadians realised that a problem as complex as poverty could be addressed only through a multisector comprehensive approach. They realised that poverty was not going to be reduced by some innovation – some cool, new program nobody thought of before. It was going to be addressed through better systems that were mutually supporting and able to enact change on a population level.”

So they began building city-wide and community-wide structures. They started 15 years ago with just six cities, but now they have 72 regional networks covering 344 towns. They begin by gathering, say, 100 people from a single community. A quarter have lived with poverty; the rest are from business, not for profits and government.

They spend a year learning about poverty in their area, talking with the community. They launch a different kind of conversation. First, they don’t want better poor; they want fewer poor. That is to say, their focus is not on how do we give poor people food so they don’t starve. It is how do we move people out of poverty. Second, they up their ambitions. How do we eradicate poverty altogether? Third, they broaden their vision. What does a vibrant community look like in which everybody’s basic needs are met?

After a year they come up with a town plan. Each town’s poverty is different. Each town’s assets are different. So each town’s plan is different.

The town plans feature a lot of collaborative activities. A food pantry might turn itself into a job training centre by allowing the people who are fed to do the actual work. The pantry might connect with local businesses that change their hiring practices so that high school degrees are not required. Businesses might pledge to raise their minimum wage. 

The plans involve a lot of policy changes on the town and provincial levels – improved day care, redesigned transit systems, better workforce development systems. The process of learning and planning and adapting never ends. 

A leader in the approach, The Tamarack Institute pioneered a lot of this work. They emphasise that the crucial thing these community-wide collective impact structures need is attitude change: 

“In the beginning, it’s as if everybody is swimming in polluted water. People are sluggish, fearful, isolated, looking out only for themselves. But when people start working together across sectors around a common agenda, it’s like cleaning the water. Communities realise they can do more for the poor. The poor realise they can do more for themselves. New power has been created, a new sense of agency.”

Collective impact in Canada is a real-life experience of where theory or thought leadership meets practice and brings transformational change. The challenge is to get people and organisations to work together, not against each other. Poverty is the real challenge, but so is distrust, polarisation, competition and personal ego amongst those wanting to end poverty.

There has to be learning from the Canadian experience. We could all do with a dose of collective impact. Not for our own health, but the health of those whose daily existence is entrenched systemic poverty.

Andrew Curtis  |  @ProBonoNews

Dr Andrew Curtis is the co-founder and director of The Dragonfly Collective.

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