My colleague Karthi Streb* and I recently attended a Champions for Change event to learn more about how to achieve collective impact. Collective impact happens when a group of participants from different sectors commits to a common agenda for solving a complex social problem. The concept was first articulated in a 2011 Stanford Social Innovation Review article by John Kania and Mark Kramer.
During the trip, Karthi and I talked a lot about a lot of things (our work, our kids, the amazing Pacific salmon and Vancouver scenery…) as we grew more and more excited about the possibilities of more explicitly using a collective impact framing in our work at NICHQ. And as we talked about our work and our kids, I remembered the book The Day the Crayons Quit by Drew Daywalt. (I have a habit lately of connecting my work to children’s books.) As I reread this book, it hit me that Daywalt provides a beautiful illustration of the kind of partnership we hope to achieve in collective impact.
In the book, Duncan’s mission is just to color, but his crayons are sowing seeds of discontent. Purple is going to “completely lose it” if Duncan continues to color outside the lines. Peach feels naked without his paper wrapper and refuses to leave the crayon box. Blue feels overworked and has become short and stubby, no longer able to see. White reports that not being in the rainbow “leaves me feeling… well… empty.” Pink is tired of being typecast as “girly.” And Yellow and Orange have stopped speaking to each other because each one feels they alone are the color of the sun. They share this with Duncan in letters that they sign, “Your naked friend, Peach crayon…Your overworked friend, Blue crayon…”
Duncan is not deterred by the frustrations of his drawing partners. He listens, addresses some of his partners’ complaints (for example, using the overworked Blue crayon more sparingly) and finds a way to bring out the best in all of his crayons.
There is a lot to learn about partnering for collective impact from Duncan’s story. Paul Born, a leading collective impact and community-building practitioner at the Tamarack Institute, describes collective impact as how to “make the work of working together better and more effective.” Duncan and his crayon partners built a more effective working relationship and ultimately Duncan achieved the outcome he wanted—to just color.
Collective impact is in NICHQ’s DNA, although until recently we haven’t had the benefit of this language or framework. In our newest project, we are using collective impact concepts to engage federal, state, and local leaders, public and private agencies, professionals and communities to reduce infant mortality and improve birth outcomes. NICHQ is honored to have been selected to be what collective impact would refer to as the “backbone organization” in this important initiative to save lives with an exceptional group of partner organizations.
A backbone organization is the coordinating center for an initiative, but it is not the only driver of the initiative or the work. In fact, there’s a risk that the backbone organization “owns” the effort rather than the effort belonging to the whole partnership; so it’s important to find the right balance between leading and leading too far.
NICHQ’s mission is to improve children’s health. This mission is so big we couldn’t possibly achieve it alone. It is fundamentally about partnerships, about finding effective ways to collaborate and build on each other. It is a vision that builds on pillars of collective impact to generate collaboration for social change.
We hope to achieve the right balance with our partner organizations that share our mission and we welcome suggestions from our partners for how might continually improve our approach. We certainly do not want to argue like the Yellow and Orange crayons about who is the color of the sun. In our world, the sunshine comes from “collaboration” and “partnership” rather than “ownership.”
Let’s just color!
Your energized friend,
* Karthi and I collaborated on writing this post and on the ideas behind it. More partnership in action!