Monday, September 12, 2011

Collective Impact

How recently have you discussed the impact your museum has–or would like to have–as part of a project meeting, at a board retreat, with an organizational partner, or with a funder? Very likely you’ve been involved in several. Perhaps you have been asked for examples of museums doing this well, have checked out a dashboard; looked up a conference session; or have googled museum impact or public value. 

Museums want to matter. With a need to be both nice and necessary they struggle to find ways to have an impact that makes a recognized difference on visitors, learners, and the community. They want to find a way to move the needle on a community priority like closing the readiness gap, bring back play, or reducing obesity.

With questions of impact lurking everywhere, I felt I had received a tremendous gift when I read Collective Impact from the Stanford Social Innovation Review (Winter 2011) by John Kania and Mark Kramer. The authors explore a concept of collective impact with supporting case studies capable of effecting large-scale social change. 

Collective impact, they say is, “the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem.” Collective impact, I am finding, is a powerful lens for focusing on, distinguishing among, and strengthening museum initiatives to create positive change. 

Organizing for Impact
The article makes a major, valuable, and suddenly obvious point.

Complex social problems are a function of a wide range of interacting factors at play over an extended time. They must be addressed by a broad-based, sustained response of comparable complexity and magnitude.

Efforts at educational reform, watershed restoration, or improving community health resist isolated, independent initiatives of a single organization or a few partners, regardless of how innovative the intervention might be.

In greater Cincinnati and northern Kentucky, a group of local leaders from every community sector has been working together over the last four years with a shared agenda to improve student achievement. Improving one point on the education continuum, these leaders knew, would make little difference if all parts were not improved. Furthermore, no single organization would have the power or resources to accomplish this alone. More than 300 leaders and their organizations have organized themselves into StrivePartnership a non-profit subsidiary of KnowledgeWorks that coordinates improvement at every step of a young person’s life, from cradle-to-career.

This is no small effort. Strive Partnership represents more than 300 organizations in a broad, cross-sector effort among universities and community colleges, private and corporate foundations, school districts, city government departments, and hundreds of education-based and advocacy organizations. 

Alignment is high across the collaborative. All participants commit to a shared vision for change, including a common understanding of the problem. The entire educational community focuses on a single set of five goals and eight priority outcomes for all its programs. All organizations use shared measures across all programs and all levels.

The Strive Partnership builds on what these organizations already do well that the solution needs. Rather than creating new educational programs, participating groups focus on specific activities where they have current capabilities. Multiple partners with mutually supportive programs form around specific strategies. They develop shared performance indicators, follow progress towards shared objectives, and find new ways to align efforts and support each other.

Strive, a separate organization that supports the initiative, plays a central role in strengthening relationships among partners and in aligning and coordinating their efforts. The role it plays in gathering and reporting data across all participating organizations is critical to maintaining alignment and holding partners accountable. A deliberately data driven initiative, Strive promotes collaborative continuous improvement that advances overall learning to find and implement interdependent solutions that work for children.

Results of this comprehensive, systemic effort are beginning to show and are promising. Strive’s 2010 Report Card shows positive gains on 40 of 53 success indicators. Significant interest in Strive, its approach and successes is coming from other communities. Strive has begun to consolidate its learnings and processes and work with nine communities across the country in a community of learners.

The article also highlights the role funders have in understanding and supporting collective impact. Funders too must shift from assuming that innovative initiatives by a single organization can have an impact on major social problems.

Five Elements for Success
The article describes the Strive Partnership and also identifies five elements of success that encourage alignment and lead to powerful results. These five elements strongly reinforce one another; they build the kind of alignment, discipline, and persistence required for large-scale social change.
            Common agenda. All participants share a vision for change. A major commitment from every partner, a common agenda requires shared understanding and ownership of the problem and the solution.
            Shared measurement systems. Agreement on what to measure maintains a common focus on change and holds all partners accountable; common systems for measuring results use the same criteria and inform decisions.
            Mutually reinforcing activities. Stakeholders’ differentiated activities interlock and coordinate with one another in an overarching plan consistent with a common agenda.
            Continuous communication. Developing familiarity among partners, building trust that all interests will receive fair consideration, and coordinating activities takes time, frequent contact, and multiple forms of communication.
            Backbone support organization. Dedicated staff, time, skills, and tools are critical to creating and managing collective impact: coordination, facilitating decision-making, data collection and reporting, and strengthening relationships among stakeholders.

Many museums use some of these five elements and to some extent in their large-scale community initiatives that are intended to produce recognizable and lasting results related to a community priority. Few museums, however, use all of these elements to a significant degree. I see these five elements as helpful in distinguishing well-intentioned efforts of museums from initiatives with significant potential; they also provide helpful guidance for moving a collaborative effort to collective impact.

Museums Engaging in Collective Impact
From my museum planning work, I am familiar with several large-scale museum projects that put some of these elements of collective impact to work. Each project is learning as it goes, reaching across sectors for partners, evolving practices, and strengthening their focus.

  Louisiana Children’s Museum’s (LCM) has embraced the opportunity to help rebuild New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina by bringing the community together around positive futures for young children. Working with a core group of organizations that share a commitment to children’s healthy social, emotional, cognitive, and physical development, LCM has been planning the Early Learning Village (ELV), a campus of three facilities in New Orleans’ City Park. Long-term, strategic collaborators, the ELV Partners bring critical expertise in infant-toddler mental health, nature education, literacy, parenting, research, as well as play-based learning experiences to offer a range of indoor and outdoor programs and services and free and low-cost resources that will serve parents, caregivers, educators and researchers from across Greater New Orleans.

   In Birmingham (AL) McWane Science Center has formed a broad cross-sector group to change the health and wellness outcomes for children 7 - 13 years old. Its Healthy Change in Your Community Challenge provides a common agenda for McWane and its partners which include a university, foundation, county health department, and community-based youth organizations. Children involved in the Healthy Change initiative work with project partners who bring a wide range of complementary skills and expertise in nutrition, physical exercise, and experience development. Children are challenged to plan and implement the best community wellness projects that could inspire change in their neighborhoods.

  Stepping Stones Museum for Children and The Maritime Aquarium of Norwalk (CT) are two of more than 40 organizations that make up Norwalk ACTS. Over the last six years, Norwalk ACTS has been evolving a structure, processes, and practices consistent with collective impact targeted to actively and directly improve the lives and futures of Norwalk youth. Partners have committed to a shared vision, three strategic outcomes, and indicators related to closing the achievement gap. Workgroups have formed and are active around five cradle-to-career focus areas. Norwalk ACTS hosts several major projects including an Out of School Time Network and a Choice Neighborhoods Initiative. A new Early Learning and  Literacy Initiative is targeted to impact readiness for kindergarten. Presently the backbone organization identified in Collective Impact is contributed by member organizations’ volunteer efforts.

 Sally Grose, a member of the Norwalk ACTS strategic planning team, an advocate for children in Norwalk, and a wonderful friend to Stepping Stones found and shared the Collective Impact article as a part of her research on related best practices in other communities that could be helpful to Norwalk ACTS.

Looking Further
I know there are more collective impact museum projects. I would love to hear about them and I know others with an interest in museums and public value would. Below are  projects at a variety of scales and in various areas along with some related resources. 

• Harlem Children’s Zone that is doing whatever it takes to educate children and strengthen the community:
• Baby’s Space is putting the baby’s point of view at the center of child development programs – from start-up to sustainability:
• All Around the Neighborhood, a neighborhood learning community in St. Paul, MN:
• Alignment Nashville aligns community organizations to positively impact the Nashville community by helping our public schools succeed and our youth live healthier lives:
• Ready to Learn Providence, a program of the Providence Plan, is a broad-based community coalition with the vision that all children in Providence will enter school healthy and ready to learn:
• The Blue Zone project in Albert Lea, MN has set out to add 10,000 years of healthy life to a typical American city:
• Search Institutes has Five Action Strategies for Transforming Communities:


  1. Dear Jeanne,

    My name is Michelle DelCarlo and I am University of Washington Museology graduate student. I am passionate about community engagement and the creation of meaningful experiences in our museums. I wanted to say that I am so glad I found your blog, and thank you for listing these collective impact projects. They will greatly add to my thesis research.

    I have created and currently direct a collaborative project I thought you would be interested in. It's The Pop-Up Museum, a traveling audience-based space where community building and meaningful experiences are the goal. I would like to humbly ask you to take a look: Please feel free to send me your reactions and/or thoughts.

    Thank you again, and all the best,
    Michelle DelCarlo

  2. Michelle, Thank you for your comment and for your active and imaginative approach to community building. I think the Pop-up Museum is a great idea and look forward to visiting your blog.