Should All Companies Pursue Collective Impact?

By Greg Hills Managing Director, FSG

June 03, 2014– A hot topic at the CECP Summit this year was the role companies should play in collaborative efforts. In a jam-packed room, I had the pleasure of representing FSG on a lively panel discussing collective impact with Citi Foundation CEO Pam Flaherty moderated by CECP Executive Director Margaret Coady.

Collective impact is a structured approach to achieving social change, applying a common agenda, shared measurement, and a strong backbone to drive social impact at scale.

Up-front questions from participants revealed the inherent tensions companies face in considering collaboration approaches:

  •  How can my company still get credit and media hits when we collaborate?
  •  How do we get nonprofits not to compete with each other?
  •  How do we “force” collaborations to happen?
  •  How do we get our internal stakeholders in line?
  •  How do we measure success?

Pam shared Citi’s recent experiences with its impressive Partners in Progress program, which uses a “community quarterback” model to build economic opportunity in 10 low-income communities across the country. I provided an overview of the collective impact concept and shared two different examples, Mars’ collaboration efforts contributing to cocoa sustainability in Cote d’Ivoire and Eli Lilly’s involvement in catalyzing the Reconnecting to Our Waterways effort in Indianapolis.

Each example deserves its own blog write-up, but instead I want to repeat here some candid advice I shared with the participants – essentially, be clear-eyed about your company’s readiness for pursuing collective impact.

First, are you comfortable with public relations not being the primary objective for your collaboration efforts? If your primary motivation is reputation (versus social impact), then collective impact is not a great fit. Collective impact participants – whether corporations, foundations, or nonprofits – need to subordinate achieving individual credit in favor of the greater good of the targeted social problem. Participants should focus on optimizing for social impact and how that should be achieved. Certainly significant communications benefits can accrue to company participants, as Pam described with Citi, but if that’s the leading driver the collaboration won’t work well.

Second, can you relinquish ownership of the overall effort and “co-create” solutionswith community partners? This would require accepting that the strategy may not look exactly like you might have crafted it yourself.

Third, are you open to embracing a non-linear approach to strategy execution that requires the company to be flexible and adaptive in the face of unanticipated dynamics? Can you stomach a longer-term timeline where results are measured in years, not weeks or months?

If you struggle to answer “yes” to these questions, you may not yet be a candidate to fully engage in collective impact. Collective impact is incredibly challenging. It’s messy. It requires new muscles for engaging with partners. And it’s not for everyone.

But, if you’re well poised to embrace these characteristics of collective impact, then you should seize the opportunity to reimagine how to achieve large scale social change in your community. Moving from isolated impact to collective impact holds great promise for tackling the most complex and dynamic community-level challenges. Whether it’s as a catalyst, backbone, or participant in a collective impact effort, corporations can and should engage in structured, cross-sector efforts to solve social problems.

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