Revolutionary Reboot

by mkpersyn

What if, in the next ten years, we could reduce poverty in the Bay Area by fifty percent?  What if reducing poverty also required increasing access to healthy, fresh food, improving environmental quality, adding open space and safe sidewalks in vulnerable communities, revising and expanding public transit to take people to jobs, buttressing public education, and impacting the social determinants of health, including public safety, obesity, and asthma?

Too audacious, you say?  Too much to expect in the midst of a recession–or ever?

Well, what if doing only one thing will accomplish nothing durable, but doing everything at once will move the world?  One simple, beautiful idea: what if multiple organizations worked together for a common goal, in the service of a common agenda and mission, with fully coordinated efforts?  Could we make a difference if we tried to do everything at once?

The United Way of the Bay Area is about to try (check out Make It Be).  Their project, which aims to reduce Bay Area poverty by fifty percent in ten years,    pulls in more partners daily.  And it’s fueled by “collective impact,” a concept that describes collaborative projects that can scale to sizes sufficient to really move the needle–finally–on some of the most stubborn social problems we confront. 

“Collaboration is nothing new,” John Kania and Mark Kramer of FSG Social Impact Consultants concede in their article Collective Impact.  But imagine collaboration enabled by a common agenda, shared values (and shared power), and a central staff.  That’s collective impact in action, and this kind of directed coordination across groups and sectors is the revolutionary reboot so desperately needed now.

Working together, organizations dedicated to collective impact reinforce each other’s work, creating a whole greater than the sum of its parts–and potentially able simultaneously to attack multiple dimensions of highly complex social problems like poverty.  Consider the examples from education, environmental conservancy, public health, and more, in the Kania and Kramer article and in the New York Times “Fixes” op-eds by David Bornstein, especially The Power of Partnerships and Coming Together to Give Schools a Boost

Archimedes famously said that given a long enough lever and a fulcrum, he could move the world.  But this image evokes a machine governed by the laws of physics and mathematics.  We cannot solve the problems in front of us with a simple lever and fulcrum; we can’t attack them one at a time.  No machine, and no mechanistic approach, will help.

That’s because large-scale social problems are organic, dynamic, and fantastically complex.  Take education, where we’re still looking for the magic bullet.  By turns, we sign on to the idea that fixing the curriculum will turn the tide.  Then, we’re certain it’s the teachers.  A while later, we’re on to class size.  But while education involves classes and teachers and books, it also involves nutrition, public safety, environmental quality, public transit, and many social determinants of health.  Trying to “fix” only the curriculum or the teacher is like bandaging a knee while studiously ignoring the fact that the patient is burning up with fever and has a broken arm.  We can’t “fix” education until we care for the whole child, and that challenge can seem insurmountable.

But that’s the power of collective impact.  By coordinating efforts in several dimensions–pulling together partners from the for-profit, non-profit, and public sectors to analyze and coordinate responses to a set of closely-related problems–collaborative projects powered by collective impact also function like a human body:  organic, proactive as well as reactive, and able to shift constantly in response to the conditions it encounters.  Partners seeking collective impact will need to function as part of an organic being, and that is a significant, considerable challenge.  Nevertheless, we must confront it.  Now is the time.

I created this blog to explore the revolutionary reboot.  The next post will focus on the United Way’s declaration of a renewed war on poverty–so audacious that it just might work.