Tips for Collaborating Across Sectors to Achieve Results

Posted September 26, 2014, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Most communities have multiple social and educational initiatives that are not always well connected. The benefit of working together can get overshadowed by addressing crises of the day and responding to new funding opportunities. As a consequence, civic capacity is stretched, solutions to pressing problems are frequently less than productive, civic leaders become disenchanted, and there’s little sense of progress. Not surprisingly, this situation sometimes leaves some community leaders feeling that real change is impossible to achieve.

But in some communities, the opposite happens. Civic leaders are able to make change by working together, whether that change involves better schools, community reinvestment in distressed neighborhoods or improving public safety. This coalition-based approach to change involves multiple community sectors, such as the local school system, mayor’s office, businesses and philanthropy explicitly aligning their various skills, assets and contributions to achieve common, focused results that improve the circumstances of children, families and communities. This approach has been called “collective impact,” or multisector collaboration for results.

A robust literature on the theory and practice of collective impact is emerging from experience around the country. It draws upon many of the lessons of Results-Based Accountability. It identifies key features such as strong civic leaders and champions, setting ambitious outcomes using data, building backbone organizational capacity, cultivating the capacities required for performance management and continuous improvement, and strategic communications. Laying the Groundwork for Collective Impact adds to this collection with insights gleaned from 35 practitioners and investors in multisector collaborations. The new working paper includes perspectives from a number of people involved in Casey community and system-change initiatives like Evidence2Success, Leadership in Action and the Jobs Initiative.

Their broad and varied experiences help inform the paper’s advice and guidance for early-stage collaboratives that have recruited civic leaders and multi-year funding and are ready to translate good plans into credible action and early wins. The paper identifies five key ingredients as important at the outset: 

  • a group of leaders at the top and in the middle of organizations;
  • trusted relationships needed for long-term collaboration;
  • a compelling rationale and sense of urgency for the collaboration;
  • data-driven results and a North Star goal to inspire and direct investment; and
  • opportunity moments to move the collaboration forward.

Communities need to get a lot of things right when they start up collective impact collaborations. Yet they can’t do everything, and no one answer works for all communities in the same way. It is important to understand the tradeoffs of different approaches and customize next steps so they fit local circumstances. Laying the Groundwork for Collective Impact offers advice on recruiting public sector champions, who are crucial to any large-scale system change, as well as on engaging the community in the initiative, promoting equitable opportunities, setting goals and collecting data, achieving early wins that spur momentum and reinforce support for the initiative, and learning from mistakes.

Getting a good start is essential but only the beginning of collective impact collaboration. In the long run, communities need to build a culture and practice of continuous improvement using data and adapt new approaches as progress and setbacks occur. A solid foundation at the outset will ensure that communities have a good chance of achieving bold results and making the best use of community resources.

Collective impact or multisector approaches to improving results are built upon a deep sense of urgency. Our children must progress along a pathway to skills and careers without falling off or being unable to get back on. Their future depends upon this. And our advocacy for additional public and private resources will only be effective when communities demonstrate that aligning their various contributions produces better results.

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