Over the last month, Liz Weaver, Vice President, Tamarack Institute and I have been engaged in an email exchange puzzling out the answers to many wicked questions about collective impact and community change. Below is part I of V, where we discuss how to ensure a community agenda not just a shared agenda.
How do we ensure that it is truly a ‘Community Agenda’ not just the shared agenda of folks around the collective impact (CI) table?
I believe in going in ‘messy.’ Generating conversations with the broader community of interest before a project has a name; before objectives have been written up and before any business case has been developed for funding. The temptation for organisations meeting together to discuss an issue is to scope the project, work out some key messages, make sure organisations are not falling over each other, and to identify resources.
All good reasons to get all the ducks lined up. However, it’s risky. By the time there is a project announced, and key partners identified, it can look like it’s just another government or NGO led project designed to fix a problem. The rationale is then sold. The importance of working together is marketed. From the community’s perspective, they have not yet got their fingerprints over the project. This looks like another thing that will be done for us or to us.
Going in messy means there is genuine intent to frame the project in a way that is meaningful for those who are meant to benefit by, or contribute, to an initiative. Going in messy means the project can be shaped. Every project has to start somewhere. But don’t go too far without knowing your community has had genuine involvement in identifying the purpose, and the key questions to be answered.
What advice do you have Liz?
Being comfortable with the messy, being open to different perspectives allows us to really unpack the problem.
Many collective impact initiatives start as a response to a community need, issue or opportunity of some sort. There are usually two or three people who get together and say, this is not right or this is an opportunity that we can’t miss out on. Their conversation usually leads to other conversations about who we need to connect with whether there is support for at least moving this conversation forward.
Keeping the conversation open at the beginning is challenging. Many of us want to jump to the solution quickly given our area of expertise. But what we have learned is that collective impact issues, problems or opportunities are often very complex. There are multiple players in the system, multiple perspectives and multiple solutions. Being comfortable with the messy, being open to different perspectives allows us to really unpack the problem.
But there will be a time where clarity is required. This is when data disaggregation and community mapping become useful. What is the data telling us about the complexity of the problem and how it is impacting different individuals in our community? Who is already delivering services and how are these services connected? Who cares about this issue and how are they connected?
Approaching complex challenges is tough and messy work. In collective impact approaches, we can’t jump quickly to solutions. We need a tolerance for ambiguity, for learning about how forces are impacting the problem, and then we can bring in tools that help to bring focus and clarity. If we do this well, the issue becomes owned, not only by us, but by the community.
Do you agree with their perspectives? Do you have other questions they should consider? What are the challenges you are facing as you engage in collective impact? We invite you to add your comments and join the conversation here.
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