How do we know we’re making a difference, together?

Note: This article was originally published on August 27, 2014 on the Community Knowledge Exchange (CKX) Blog. It has been cross-posted with permission from CKX.

Each day across Canada, staff and volunteers in social-profit and charitable organizations are working hard to deliver important programs and services to some of the most vulnerable individuals in our communities.  This collective effort crosses many domains – from human services to recreation to the arts.  Intuitively, we can say that the quality of life that we experience in Canada is a result of the effort of these organizations. But the question remains, how do we actually know that we are making a difference, making an impact, together? 

Many of the issues facing our communities are incredibly complex – poverty, school achievement, maintaining clean environments, building local economies, addressing homelessness, and achieving health and well-being.  There are multiple players working hard to address these issues including governments at different levels, foundations, funders, organizations and citizens.  These complex issues involving diverse partners require a different approach.

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In 2011, John Kania and Mark Kramer of FSG Social Impact Consultants published a paper in the Stanford Social Innovation Review called Collective Impact. This paper theorized a new way of working together where diverse partners agreed to a common agenda to guide their work. They also needed to agree to shared measures to track progress and determine collectively on those activities that would lead to the greatest results. Collective Impact efforts also focus on continuous communications as a mechanism to maintain momentum and keep the partners at the table. Finally, Kania and Kramer identified the need for a backbone infrastructure, a critical investment in staffing to make sure that collective efforts continue to move forward over time.

Since the publication of the collective impact article, organizations and collaborative planning tables have been experimenting with this framework designed for community change on complex issues. In Canada, there are many emerging examples of collective impact efforts. Vibrant Communities, an initiative of Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement, has been utilizing a form of collective impact in developing place-based, multi-sector approaches to reducing poverty in cities across Canada.

When it was first started in 2002, Vibrant Communities Canada was called an ‘action-learning experiment’.  Its partners, including local city leaders, the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, Tamarack, and Caledon Institute of Social Policy recognized that community change efforts needed a longer time horizon and a focus on learning as you go. The partners also recognized the need for data to both inform and measure success. City partners were required to complete a poverty matrix before they began to develop their plan. The poverty matrix was a tool for local planning tables to use demographic data to understand the issue and impact of poverty on that city or community. The poverty matrix provided a baseline of information that was critical for each local context.

Understanding that we are making a difference together begins with detailed knowledge about the baseline data about the issue we are trying to impact. The poverty matrix provided a detailed demographic profile of poverty for the Vibrant Communities cities.

Increasingly, we have seen a number of demographic resources available to community change initiatives emerge. The Canadian Index of Well Being, Community Foundations of Canada’s Vital Signs reports (which are regularly published in many communities across Canada), and Community Accounts are examples of resources that provide key data, both baseline and progress, that collaborative tables can now access.

Detailed data about the problem is the starting point. From that point, collaborative or collective impact tables have to agree to a set of shared measures that will prove they are making progress together. At Vibrant Communities, it took us a while to get agreement on our shared measurements but once we did, it was amazing to see our progress. As we began to track our results collectively, we learned a lot from each other. Shared measurement can do that. By viewing shared measurement as an opportunity to learn and continuously improve, members can hone in on those strategies that make the biggest difference. They can also learn to let go of those things that are not working.

We also learned that shared measurement requires a variety of different measures, not only population based measures. Recently, the folks at FSG Social Impact Consultants have published a series of guides Evaluating Collective Impact. These guides are very useful as they provide measures to consider and detail the evaluation process for collective impact.

It is complicated, getting the right baseline data and then getting agreement on those shared measures which will show progress, but these are essential steps in knowing that you are making a difference together. This moves your collective effort from nice to do, to an effort with impact.

To learn more about Collective Impact and how to scale up your community impact efforts, register to attend the Tamarack Institute’s first-ever Collective Impact Summit happening October 6-10, 2014 in Toronto, ON.

Collective Impact Summit 2014

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Liz Weaver About Liz Weaver

Liz Weaver is the lead for Vibrant Communities Canada-Cities Reducing Poverty and Tamarack's Vice-President.

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