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Context, Culture and Equity in Collective Impact: Reflections on Tamarack Institute’s 2015 Summit

Since John Kania and Mark Kramer coined the phrase “Collective Impact” and defined its five principles in 2011, the concept has rapidly gained currency. At Tamarack Institute’s recent Collective Impact Summit in Vancouver, Canada, much of the discussion was around how this model continues to evolve. Example after example from colleagues bore out the value of the original five principles but reframed and expanded them. While the conversations felt exploratory in nature, there were certain themes that surfaced over and over throughout the week. Some of the more compelling themes were the importance of knowing the unique context of the community you are working with, being mindful of social inequity embedded within the culture of that community, and using the Collective Impact process to establish more equity within the community. Below I offer some observations on how the new emphases on context, equity, and culture play into the Collective Impact model.

Tamarak Institute

The topic of shared measurement is often one of the most daunting principles of Collective Impact, especially for smaller organizations that may lack the capacity and experience collecting and managing volumes of data. Conversations at the Summit cut through the intimidating mystique of shared measurement and reframed it as shared learning. Mark Cabaj reminded us that, “Having data is not enough, you have to use it to inform strategy.” Quantitative data, which is often our focus, only tells you that you need to focus your attention on certain areas….a bright spot, an indicator that just won’t move, etc. But quantitative data doesn’t necessarily tell you how to adapt your strategy in response to a signal. Gathering qualitative data will provide the nuance to help inform and adapt strategy.

By collecting qualitative data you are likely inviting multiple people from the community to share some part of their experience of the issue at hand and providing a forum for diverse voices to inform your strategy. This is a great start at grounding the Collective Impact effort in the unique context of the community. However, this is not enough. Shared learning is not about extracting information and data from some groups to inform and enlighten other groups, often the practitioners or “experts.” It is also about providing everyone who comprises “the community” an opportunity to see and interpret and to share their point of view. That way you gain both a richer context for your data as well as create a more equitable learning process.

There was also a big focus at the summit on the role of the backbone organization. This can be another tricky part of a Collective Impact effort because there is really no one, or even three, “right” ways to run a collaborative. Again, the emphasis was on context. One of my favorite takeaways from the summit was the phrase “good enough governance.” To me this meant that form should follow function. Backbone organizations and governance structures need to meet the community where they are and provide enough support to move towards the goals without getting entangled in process.

Continuous communication sounds easy, if not time consuming. I’ve often wondered why this element was elevated to a core principle of Collective Impact—Isn’t it just one of the tasks of the backbone? However, the concept took on a new weight when, during conversations at the summit, it was reframed as authentic community engagement. All of a sudden, this wasn’t about churning out reports and dashboards in a one-way stream of information, but about listening. Listening at the pace and in the ways that people want to share their stories. Even more than that, it is about putting engagement before process so that, again, form follows function. If you have a spectacularly defined structure but it is not inclusive of multiple voices, then you have it the wrong way around. It may take a brave person to embark on this complex work, but it takes an even braver soul to let go of “knowing” and embrace the creative chaos and potential learning opportunities that come from authentic community engagement.

Perhaps we don’t talk about context, culture and equity frequently because it’s hard to know where they fit on a pictogram of the Collective Impact process. I struggled with something similar when trying to corral the relationship of organizational culture and organizational success into a power point visual. Some things just aren’t well represented in two dimensions. But, rather than ignore these complicated elements, my fellow practitioners from around the world dove in head first at the Summit. It was refreshing to collectively admit that we don’t know all the answers, that we can’t see our own blind spots without help, and that this work can be a challenging personal journey. Al Etmanski provided an elegant illustration of how, to make change in the world, we must start with changes in ourselves. He shared this perspective: “Deep collaboration is a peacemaking journey, with ourselves, with the process and with our partners.”

So I will leave you with this question, “What is your peacemaking journey?”

Mona Jones-Romansic

Mona Jones-Romansic

Mona is known as a highly intuitive and insightful consultant whose systems-focused approach surfaces the fundamental obstacles facing her clients rather than simply addressing symptomatic issues.\r\nHer facilitation style creates a safe space for her clients to reflect, turn towards challenges honestly and openly, and leverage their unrealized strengths for greater impact.