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.


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

Vibrant Communities Canada – Getting to Shared Outcomes

SiG Note: This article was originally published on July 17, 2014 on Tamarack CCI - the online learning community for collaborative leaders. It is the second post of our Collective Impact Series leading up to the Tamarack Institute’s Collective Impact Summit this October. It has been cross-posted with permission from Tamarack.

A very interesting meeting happened in Montreal in July. The J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, Ontario Trillium Foundation, and the Lucie and André Chagnon Foundation invited foundation colleagues from Canada and the United States to a workshop focused on Evaluation and Learning for Aligned Action.  

The workshop included a number of evaluation experts and practitioners. Vibrant Communities Canada was invited to share lessons learned from our journey to collective impact and shared outcomes.

See the Pecha Kucha presentation that I prepared to entice everyone to attend my workshop and the PowerPoint presentation we prepared about the journey of how our movement collectively developed a common evaluation framework.

The Tamarack Institute and Vibrant Communities Canada have taken the lead in developing a shared evaluation framework for those cities engaged in place-based poverty reduction efforts (Cities Reducing Poverty).  From 2002-2012, this included 13 cities from coast-to-coast in Canada.  Over the past two years, this network has expanded to include more than 50 cities across the country.  While the shared evaluation framework is coordinated nationally, each of the cities collects local data and contributes their results through an annual survey.  Recently, Vibrant Communities Canada also partnered with the Community Data Program to purchase population level data for each of the cities.  This set of 12 population level indicators will enable us to better determine collective impact across the network on an annual basis.

Vibrant Communities Canada and our Cities Reducing Poverty partners review and reflect on our individual and collective results annually.  This reflection on shared outcomes is instrumental to understanding the progress we are making and some of the challenges that local communities face when working collectively to achieve change.

This post has led me to consider the evaluation journey in more detail.  PowerPoint presentations often don’t provide the details about the hard graft that went into each step.  To give a better sense of where we are today, I have developed the Vibrant Communities Historical Timeline, illustrating the evolution of experiences, conversations, learning, testing, reviewing and revising behind our collective efforts.  Most of us only look back on the last three months or the last year.  Twelve years is a long time to reflect – but each step was critical along the path:

Advice and Lessons Learned On Shared Evaluation
  • Getting to shared outcomes is more than a process.  Deepening our understanding and learning about shared outcomes is a journey.
  • A clear and shared understanding of the issue – in our case poverty – emerged out of the work.  At the beginning, we did not have this shared understanding.  Once it was developed, it was easier to build a shared evaluation framework across different sites.
  • The Sustainable Livelihoods Asset Pentagon was vital in developing a common evaluation framework.  Each city, despite undertaking different activities, was engaged in building assets.  The Assets Pentagon allowed us to compare results across each city.
  • When working across multiple sites, look for scalable results.  The CCSD Community Data Program allows Vibrant Communities to purchase shared and comparable data across different cities.
  • Have patience and focus on learning and improving in each evaluation round.
Learn more about developing shared evaluation frameworks and how to scale up your community impact efforts using collective impact: Register to attend the Tamarack Institute’s first-ever Collective Impact Summit happening October 6-10, 2014 in Toronto, ON.

[Collective Impact] The Tango of Collective Impact

SiG Note: This article was originally published on June 25, 2014 on Tamarack CCI – the online learning community for collaborative leaders. It is the first post of our Collective Impact Series leading up to the Tamarack Institute’s Collective Impact Summit this October. It has been cross-posted with permission from Tamarack.

images (8)This weekend, I had the pleasure of watching couples dance the tango in a public square in London.  The intricacies of the dance, coupled with the individual styles of each dance partner, made for an intriguing couple of hours.  As each new song filled the square, the couples would wait for a few strands of the music and then proceed to move together. Often with their eyes closed, each couple moved around the dance floor.

For those leading collective impact community change efforts, we know that this work, like the tango, is complex and non-linear. Collective impact often feels like a dance – one step forward and one step back, with different leaders and followers interchanging around a circular dance floor. Metaphorically, we enter collective impact with our eyes closed and while we know the steps, the simple rules of collective impact (the five conditions), the context of our community is the real driver. Much like the music, space to dance in and partner(s), the community context needs to become the driver of collective impact efforts.

The rhythm of the community, its readiness to act, the urgency of the issue and the connectedness of leaders enable collective efforts to either move fast or move slow.  The capacity of our partners, including their leadership, capacity to influence and willingness to take steps into a new way of working, become essential elements in the dance.  The blending of both the individual dance couple and the whole creates a circular interwoven mosaic of leaders and followers, connected and separate elements.

But what about this metaphor leads to change and impact?  Visually, watching the dance is stunning.  But does merely watching an event lead to community change?  At some level, the answer is yes.  The dancers and community shared a connection, beauty, art and expression.  Recently, the Evaluating Collective Impact resource guides provided a series of baseline measures to consider for early stage collective impact work.  These baseline measures fit well in this context, including changes in the way individuals in the community were interacting and positive feedback through engagement.

But is this enough?  Is this collective impact?  It would be difficult to assess after just a few hours of observation, but there might be some conclusions to be drawn:

  • More than 100 individuals were drawn to the square to connect.
  • There were many different demographics represented both in the dance and as guests watching.
  • Each dancer was engaged in physical activity for a two hour period and is healthier as a result.
  • This activity occurs weekly in this public square, drawing new people into the music and dance and increasing community connection and vitality.

Certainly, we would have to undertake a more thorough evaluation to get to impact, but my observation is that many of the elements of collective impact were present.

So this metaphor, collective impact as a complex Tango, can weave and build community.  It helps us consider our partners, our leadership and how we might dance together toward community change and impact.

Learn more about the complex tango of 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.
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