I have been intrigued with collective impact before the term really existed, starting around 2000.
Working alongside environmental and human rights leaders in California, I saw the power in how social networks could bridge together environmental groups across the State of California. The possibility to take 23 California State Universities (CSU) with say, an average of four environmental groups per university, and link them together so we could work collectively inside individual campuses and across the state as a CSU network.
What if, then, we could link the CSU Environmental Network to the University of California Environmental Network and, after that, link more of these networks together? Organically connected networks statewide and across the country is highly effective for information sharing and collaboration, shaping local laws and beyond local for the better.
During my work in California at this time, Yahoo Groups were quite popular, but suffered from being in silos. Information was limited to each group and not shared across groups. Additionally, you could get information overload if you were a member of too many. So if you had, say, 23 CSU environmental networking groups, members at each school would have to join each one.
You would also be inundated with so much information that it would become useless noise at some point. Thus, we ended up in the same predicament with no real way to determine what’s useful nor how to effectively collaborate around it.
By 2003, I went on to be a Peace Corps Volunteer in Romania, where I saw the same examples within a single global organization. I was unable to see what was happening across our environmental program. We had no idea of all the past projects for reference, or current projects taking place in Romania. Further, Peace Corps Environmental programs were in over 13 countries at the time. Why not link them all together in order to leverage the work of others? Amazingly, it was not being addressed.
Years later while still on this quest, I saw the same use for collaborative networks as I worked on my MBA at Brandeis University Heller School for Social Policy in 2006. My thesis was actually on Nonprofit cross-sector collaboration, helping 250 after-school programs in Boston match and link to one another to collaborate with BostNET.org. To provide context, Friendster was on the verge of losing heavily to Facebook.
What I also noticed at the Heller School was a student body with rich experience and a hunger for social change. These students and alumni were experts, spread around the world in over 60 countries, working to solve some of the most complex social and environmental challenges of our time.
Yet, still we had no way to easily find one another and collaborate. So I became quite a pest to others, insisting we should build networks for our students and alumni. I even built a prototype and created all of Heller School’s original social media groups like Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn groups, managing them for years after. In fact our Linkedin group was one of the first 3000 groups made.
After graduating in 2006, I spoke with the largest nonprofit foundations, multi-national nonprofits, international government organizations, along with top experts in the area of cross-sector collaboration. Everyone saw the importance in solving shared problems, but individually and without proper leadership, it became daunting to them. The consensus, sadly, was that it was extremely important, but little could be done.
The reality was that if any single organization were to build such a system, it would require the same solution integrated across scores of other organizations around the world to be most effective. It then becomes problematic when a technology that costs millions, would effectively be given away for free to others, in order to reach the scale necessary as outlined.
Today, the problem is the same — an inability to see what’s happening in any given city across a multitude of initiatives and organizations.
Without knowing who’s doing what, where, when, why and how, it becomes difficult to work collectively and solve problems. For instance, try finding all of the social or environmental projects taking place in your city at any given time. This becomes labor intensive, requiring extensive research for weeks, if not months; alongside the reality of organizations constantly changing and shifting the ground below, even as you are actively researching.
This presents a huge problem, because without knowing who’s doing what we can’t coordinate or collaborate as effectively — yet it’s crucial if we want to solve increasingly complex and daunting social issues like the current homeless epidemic gripping not just cities like Portland and all of the West Coast, but also around the globe.
Times have changed since I started this quest in 2000, and we have embraced social networks that have revolutionized how we organize and collaborate. We can bridge groups and use hashtags to bring together conversations around a single topic. IRC and Rocket.chat like collaboration systems are now the new age that Yahoo Groups first ushered in. Yet, despite these wonderful advances, there is still so much more that needs to be addressed if success is to ever be realized.
Today, Collective Impact and Systems Change are two terms broadly defining how we can leverage networks of cross-sector organizations to create systematic change by working together.
For me personally, it’s been a frustrating, challenging and great learning experience over the years. I almost got there once when I started working on a company in 2008 and incorporated in 2013! But as I tell my son and daughter, never give up when you believe in something. Especially when that something is helping others do more with less and faster.
I believe Collective Impact is the single most important thing we can do to address the systemic challenges we face globally. However, we need a system that is not owned by anyone, and is created by everyone.
The issues are too important and too complex for any single entity or government to tackle alone. It requires money and political sway to be realized. That part is a given. But more than that, what is often overlooked sits right under our noses — drive and vision that we possess individually. With that, an understanding that individual brilliance can and must be expanded upon at the collective level, along with the help of other change-makers who share in this objective.
- Map out all social and environmental projects in the world so we know Who’s doing What, When, Where, Why, and How.
- Link projects to similar solutions making it easier to open up possibilities to understand how to collaborate with one another.
- Link projects together into Project Ecosystems that can coordinate and collaborate around complex social and environmental challenges.
- Link projects to resource needs and provide more time to solve the challenges they are working on.
By Sean Kvingedal