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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