10 Tips for Making the Most of Collective Impact
By Rodney Greene
As a community, Burnie, a port city on the northwest coast of Tasmania, recognised that changing the education and employment trajectory for a generation of young people needed to come from within; no one external government agency or organisation could solve the complex issues behind the situation. The community needed to drive the collaboration. The Collective Impact framework gave our grassroots collaborative process the structure and rigour we needed to work towards significant systemic change in Burnie, as it has in many other communities.
Over the past eight years, Burnie Works has made progress towards improving the systems that support children to stay in school and for young people to be employed.
With that progress comes a lot of learning as well. Here are our reflections on some of the challenges with Collective Impact and how to possibly meet them, with the hope that we can support other communities engaging in this complex and exciting work.
1. The need for agreed accountability mechanisms
Regardless of intent and goodwill, all stakeholders need to be clear about who is accountable and who is responsible for the work. These agreements need addressing at the beginning of the work – it is far too late when the wheels begin to fall off.
If a third-party organisation funds the work, there must be someone authorised to support it and to be accountable for the outcomes.
Accountability should be seen as a positive rather than a negative concept. It's not about blame; it's about stakeholders taking responsibility for learning about what's not working and holding a space for supporting one other to make the adjustments needed. Accountability should be a continuous improvement cycle rather than a means to enforce compliance.
2. The common agenda is more than words on a page – language and ownership count.
The most well-presented strategic plans will fail if the community is not fully involved in its development and if the language is unclear and not concise.
Consultation must occur in understanding context and need, and in co-designing interventions; the focus is on designing with not for.
Language must be clear, simple and reflect the culture of the community.
3. The need for absolute clarity and transparency when speaking to community
The community will quickly identify "hidden", personal, or organisational agendas.
If there are funding constraints, these need to be acknowledged or negotiated from the outset.
DO NOT tell the community it has a blank page if there are national policies or programs setting boundaries around the work.
4. The deep skills required by backbone teams
Collective Impact often occurs in a VUCA environment:
This takes the work beyond the realm of the complex and into the chaotic. The skillsets required to work within this environment are far more than technical, and often beyond adaptive. The Backbone teams need to balance process, resources and policy work while managing relationships, power dynamics and world views.
If the Backbone Team do not have these deep skills, they may be subject to, and even create trauma. It is complex, chaotic and challenging work, and those holding the space need support to do it effectively and safely.
5. Balancing between local priorities and national policy
Localism does not occur in a vacuum. There needs to be a level of pragmatism that the work operates within state and national priorities.
Funding bodies need to be very clear with the community about their expectations, and the community needs to be clear about whether those programs will meet their needs.
The secret is in how these priorities can be worked out in local contexts and for government to be open to negotiation if necessary.
6. Politics is real
Personal, identity, community and organisational politics are very real. Every system has its own political dynamic, and identifying, navigating and negotiating how you work within them is crucial.
Backbone teams must be equipped to work within the political frame, and if they're not inherently politically minded, some capacity building may be required.
7. Collective Impact and ABCD are not mutually exclusive
By its very nature, Collective Impact will seek to identify the gaps or weaknesses which need addressing at a systems level. However, there is a need to identify and engage the local strengths and assets at the community and personal level to address these identified issues. Using both approaches in tandem is a powerful combination; identifying their “burning platform” will mobilise a community and create an openness to change; using the community's strengths will make the change.
8. When not done well – Collective Impact can be destructive
Collective Impact works within a VUCA environment. Working this way is personally demanding and requires significant and often intense personal commitment. When things go wrong, people can be exposed to trauma, which can be deeply destructive.
It is vital to recognise that it is complex, difficult, relational work and ensure there are personal strategies in place to stay safe.
9. Government needs clarity about its role
Systems change requires government to participate and possibly lead at times – especially when administering funding, making sense of data or dealing with policy responses.
In these cases, the government needs to acknowledge its power and have a clear strategy for mitigating the risks to the community and the collective.
10. Intermediaries need clarity about their role
Intermediaries need to acknowledge and be transparent with communities about their role and its limitations. No intermediary can solve a community’s issues; the very nature of this work requires the community to fully own and implement the solution.
There is a threat that co-dependent relationships can develop, or for the intermediary to be “scapegoated” when desired outcomes are not achieved. This requires both parties to be clear about expectations and about governance – who is accountable and who is responsible.
Collective Impact demands more than transactional approaches; there needs to be a deep relational element that allows intermediaries and communities to wrestle with the issues together.
This post is the first in a series about our learnings from Burnie Works. Stay tuned for more!
About Rodney Greene
Rodney is the Systems Leader for Burnie Works on the northwest coast of Tasmania, and is also program manager for the Connected Beginnings site at kutalayna in Tasmania’s south.
He has been involved in Collective Impact initiatives for the past eight years, and continues to grow and apply his knowledge on systems leadership across multiple sectors. He has a particular interest in applying collective impact principles to economic and workforce development.
He holds a Masters degree in Community Management and is a board member on the Tasmanian Council of Social Services.
 From Boston and Ellis (2019) Upgrade: Building your capacity for complexity; Leaderspace