Good Readin': Systemic Social Change, Collective Impact
In the great nebulous field that is social innovation, one of the ongoing debates is whether the term should be used to describe any effort aimed at social change or whether the term should be reserved for thos efforts that lead to systemic impact. How new, how big and how creative does an effort need to be to earn the label "social innovation"? I prefer to avoid the debate myself; perhaps not a wholly appropriate strategy but it does help to keep me sane and to focus on actually effecting change, whatever you call it. But if there's one thing I think we can all agree on, it's the need for more examples of social innovation and - perhaps even more importantly - examples of strategies or methodologies that can be employed to foster social change. And if it's systemic, all the better.
I was really impressed with a recent article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review called Collective Impact. It highlights (in particular) the case study of Strive, an effort to improve student success in Greater Cincinnati. The key to Strive's success? A systemic approach that coordinates action across the spectrum of 'intervention points' - nonprofit organizations, schools, funders, government and individual actors. Strive is succeeding by defining a common agenda and working across organizations and sectors to pursue that agenda in a systematic way.
The case brings to light the often futile approach of current funding and intervention practices. We too often try to advance an agenda through a single organization or project - efforts that begin to make inroads get additional funding, and we end up supporting a bunch of important but isolated and disconnected initiatives, resulting in isolated and disconnected impact. Ultimately, these initiatives just can't succeed at creating the systemic impact we seek; it takes large-scale coordination - beyond the simple 'collaboration' of a few players - to really alter the structures and foundations that create the challenges we hope to address.
If this sounds difficult, let me (and the authors) assure you that it is. This kind of coordination takes incredible work and dedication, perhaps one of the reasons why we so often default into typical one-off funding practices (which have their own systemic challenges, entrenched in our sector). But it can be done! And among the novel and vital findings of the Strive project is the importance of a capable third-party whose exlusive responsibility is the coordination of the multi-player effort. This finding rings true with our own experiences using the Constellation Governance Model.
We need more Strives. And we need more data on similar efforts and methodologies that are fostering social change. The Collective Impact approach offers promising insight into how we can better organize for systemic social change - if we're willing to put in the hard work and commitment that will be necessary to its success.