For Deborah Chang, collective impact begins with rock climbing – an informal way to build the personal relationships and trust that undergird institutional and organizational connections. Chang started “ClimbingCrew” by inviting colleagues, friends, and friends of friends, many of whom were involved in educational technology in New York City, to go rock climbing once a month. But those conversations also helped her to realize the limits of their work in educational technology: “It got to the point where I realized education technology is all well and good but there were conversations that we weren’t having. We weren’t having conversations about diversity and equity and housing justice and all of these really big challenges that are part of the system of educational inequity.”
In order to expand these conversations and her own work beyond education and technology, Chang set out to meet, interview and learn from many of those who were already deeply engaged in work on education and community development in the Bronx, Harlem and in other parts of New York City. From these conversations, Deborah established #NYCEDU with a mission “to ensure that all children have the skills, resources and community support they need to flourish.” To pursue that mission, #NYCEDU concentrates on three main activities: convening local leaders, facilitating community innovation, and building systems for scaling impact. All of that work contributes to the development of resources, structures, expertise, and relationships that enable the initiatives of many different institutions and organizations to add up to more than the sum of their parts. This kind of “infrastructure” for collaboration and collective impact has been missing in places like the US, even as countries like Finland with an emphasis on shared responsibility make it a central part of their education systems.
The evolution of collective impact
#NYCEDU is part of a larger national and global movement to support collective impact – a term that took off after John Kania and Mark Kramer, from the FSG consulting group, published an article with that title in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2011. Kania and Kramer distinguished collective impact from other forms of collaboration by arguing that “Unlike most collaborations, collective impact initiatives involve a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants.” From their perspective, the collective focus helped to shift attention from efforts to develop and scale individual and often isolated interventions to cross-sector collaborations, like that of the Strive Partnership in Cincinnati which their article helped to establish as a national model.
As Jeff Henig and colleagues pointed out in two reports for the Wallace Foundation (“Putting Collective Impact Into Context” and “Collective Impact and the New Generation of Cross-Sector Collaborations for Education”) collective impact initiatives have a long history in cross-sector collaborations. In fact, these reports identified 182 different community initiatives with well over half in existence before 2011 that met their criteria for collaborations: the initiative had to be place-based and education-focused; include the participation of top leaders from at least two sectors (such as education and government); and have school system officials playing a prominent role. They also found that one in four of the collaborations launched before 2011 now use the term “collective impact” somewhere on their websites. As Mark Cabaj and Liz Weaver noted in their article “Collective Impact 3.0”, Kania and Kramer’s term established a clear, distinctive label that helped those in the field to categorize and describe their work. As one collective impact leader they quoted put it, the term provided a kind of shorthand so that they don’t have to try to explain what they are doing, and, instead, “We can spend more time doing the hard work on the ground.”
Five years later, frameworks and lessons for collective impact continue to evolve. A number of articles expand on and update the framework, and the Collective Impact Forum, sponsored by FSG and the Aspen Institute, hosts events and an online community to support continued development of collective work. In “Collective Impact 3.0” Cabaj and Weaver also argued that enough had been learned by those engaged in collective impact and other collaborative efforts to warrant what they called an “upgrade” in the collective impact framework. While suggesting that the key conditions for collective impact that Kania and Kramer’s laid out in 2011 are “roughly right”, Cabaj and Weaver also urged a shift from what they termed a “management approach” in which a set of leaders and organizations develop and manage a collective effort to a “movement approach” that brings together a diverse group of stakeholders to develop and pursue a common vision for the future. From their perspective, movements “open up people’s hearts and minds to new possibilities, create the receptive climate for new ideas to take hold, and embolden policymakers and system leaders. Movements change the ground on which everyday political life and management occur.”
Expanding collective impact in New York City
Like other parts of the US, New York City has had a long history of organizational and institutional collaborations and more recent collective impact initiatives including 30,000 Degrees and South Bronx Rising Together. As Chang spoke with the leaders of these initiatives around New York City, Cabaj and Weaver’s article resonated with what she was learning. In particular those conversations highlighted three challenges. Ensuring: that meetings and collaborations go “beyond Manhattan” to take place in all neighborhoods and elevate the voices and leadership of those most impacted by educational inequity; that education initiatives take on major challenges like poverty and racism that contribute to poor educational outcomes; and that community initiatives find ways to address the policies needed for systemic solutions.
Those realizations led to some straightforward developments. For example, Chang, who was then serving as an organizer for “Startup Weekend Education”, moved it from a location in Manhattan to the Bronx. These conversations also introduced Chang to a host of people across the boroughs of New York City who have the expertise that successful community-based collective efforts depend on – people like like Ocynthia Williams, a long-time parent organizer and founding member of the New York City Coalition for Educational Justice and now co-director of Harlem Renaissance Education Pipeline. As Chang put it, these growing connections help to bridge the gap between the people “who know what to do, and those who want to do it but haven’t figured it out yet.”
Those conversations and connections also paved the way for the launch of #NYCEDU’s partnership with the Alliance for School Integration and Desegregation (ASID). ASID seeks to facilitate the coordination and collective impact of a growing set of initiatives designed to address school segregation in New York City. For Chang, the partnership with ASID is more than a pilot effort. It’s a way to create the “backbone” and infrastructure that can support additional collective impact efforts in New York City. As one example, Chang described the development of a calendar that now lists many of the different events related to school integration and desegregation. That calendar enables those who want to get involved to find out what’s happening across the City. But the calendar also makes it possible to see where things are happening – what are the hotspots as well as the neighborhoods that are left out – so that strategic and collective choices can be made about how to support the work in the future. Now that this calendar has been tested, #NYCEDU plans to launch additional calendars to facilitate coordination around different issues.
As another example, #NYCEDU is co-organizing a conference on April 7th, Frontier 2018, to explore how cross sector collaboration can support more holistic and coordinated improvements in schools. That event will bring together leaders from education, education technology, community organizing, social entrepreneurship and arts activism to seed collective impact throughout the city. The conference will also help to address the fundamental issue that even these leaders have had relatively few formal opportunities to develop many of the skills and abilities demanded by collaborative, cross-sector work. As Chang puts it, “there is professional development and learning and a whole new way of thinking that is required to shift to a collective impact mindset.” In particular, Chang continued, “Collective impact leaders are hungry to have conversations about diversity, equity and identity.” To help meet that need, Frontier 2018 hosted a workshop in preparation for the event that brought the conference speakers together to build connections, design interactive sessions that engage diverse audiences, and shape the conference goals.
For Chang, all of these initiatives revolve around bringing together the people, putting in place the platforms, and creating the policies that will make it possible to address issues like school segregation that no single institution can address on its own. Ultimately, as Chang points out, success will also depend on a willingness for all those involved to let go of power and control so that a truly shared vision and agenda can emerge. Ironically, for Chang and others engaged in collective impact that means that the organizations they are working so hard to build will be most successful when they have outlived their usefulness.
— Thomas Hatch