July 14, 2014 From the President

Collective Impact: A Road Not Taken (Yet)


This month, The Philanthropist, Canada’s online journal for the non-profit sector, released its latest issue, on the currently trendy topic of Collective Impact (CI). Larry Gemmell, the issue’s guest editor, defines CI as a collaborative framework for fostering innovation and for addressing complex social issues at the community level. On the face of it, this is not new. Funders have been working together in various ways for a number of years in Canada to tackle issues such as homelessness, poverty, or environmental degradation. Gemmell acknowledges this. In his view, CI is “evolutionary, not revolutionary, in that it builds on extensive experience over decades of the arduous and complex work of creating transformative change at the community level.” But what is new then, or potentially more effective, about CI as an approach to philanthropic work?

In important ways, CI as an approach is helpful in allowing for the possibility of creating new ideas and approaches. Because it involves opportunities for many players across sectors to come together in a rigorous process to formulate and agree on objectives, it helps to spark more social innovation. But CI is not a framework for the faint of heart; it requires a degree of engagement over many years, a willingness to abandon individual ownership of outcomes in favour of collective accountability, and a discipline to apply language and measures in service of a common set of objectives. Compromises have to be made by the participants to achieve a greater whole!

So CI is not a panacea. It is an approach appropriate to complex issues which can be tackled most effectively with the alignment of many players, funders being only some and not the determining influencers. In this issue of The Philanthropist, I offer a commentary on Canadian private funders and CI, noting the reluctance of most to venture on this unfamiliar road. The current landscape in my view is characterized by the following:

  • CI is most often undertaken and led at the community or city level by public funders such as a United Way or community foundation. With some exceptions, private funders are playing a minor role.
  • CI is still unfamiliar as a concept to most private funders, since these efforts are of relatively recent vintage and results (with the exception of Vibrant Communities, have not been widely communicated.
  • The success of CI depends heavily on a well-led and resourced “backbone” or implementing organization, and this presents some important opportunities for the participation of private funders.

There are some helpful models of private funder support for a backbone organization, such as the Lucie et Andre Chagnon’s support for the organizations jointly funded by Chagnon and the government of Quebec to promote community efforts around healthy child development Avenir d’Enfants, or the Maytree Foundation’s support for a coordinating organization (ALLIES) to support employment of skilled immigrants, or the J.W.McConnell Family Foundation’s ongoing support for the backbone created to support Vibrant Communities. This is something that private funders can arguably do much more easily than government or even corporate funders, if the CI venture is untried and risks of the unknown are still high. There is no doubt that a strong backbone organization is a key success factor in the progress of a CI initiative. One caveat, though, must be noted which is the danger of mixing the roles of funders and manager of the backbone organization. The inherent power imbalances between funders and recipients make it necessary for funders to negotiate their participation carefully and to avoid taking on the role of the actual backbone.

This issue of The Philanthropist examines the history and practice of CI from many angles and I recommend it as a thorough orientation to what is a challenging but potentially very effective approach to complex social problems.

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