The X Factor in Collective Action

The X Factor in Collective Action

With a growing recognition that old ways of doing things just aren’t yielding desired results, increasingly organizations within and across sectors are seeking to work together to address deeply entrenched and seemingly intractable challenges.  Funders, nonprofits, and public sector organizations have regularly created new strategic plans and initiatives over the years with “collaboration” as the core element for success. Simultaneously, new frameworks have emerged from the academic and consulting communities offering the promise of more effective approaches for individuals and organizations to work together; the latest incarnation being “Collective Impact” and in Maine there has been a high level of conversation and convening around it, early attempts to create and implement projects, and increased interest from funders and many nonprofits attempting to position their work in this context.

So if everyone agrees that we must work together to solve big problems and if various frameworks exist to help figure out how to do that, why has it proven so challenging to achieve desired traction and impact?  We offer these observations of the “collective system” in Maine as examples of some of the headwinds.

  1. While a number of organizations are working more collectively with each other some of these efforts seem to be siloing around funding and hardened approaches to solving problems.
  2. Many of Maine’s larger funders have undergone significant strategic planning exercises in the past several years resulting in new initiatives with collaboration as the organizing principle. While notable, the formulation of many of these new efforts has been “top down” and this has created a fair amount of instability among the nonprofit community as it tries to adapt to new funding realities.
  3. There is a general lack of understanding about the needs and implications of various approaches being utilized to address challenges. Many organizations end up employing hybrid approaches that are a combination of networks for social change and collective impact methods and mindsets. In the rush to implement these new approaches, many are not re-thinking their internal organizational structures and resource allocations.
  4. The forest from the trees issue: There are too many cases where groups intent on collaborating have not adequately scanned the landscape to think holistically about the root cause of the challenge or its connectedness to other challenges in ways that support successful outcomes.
  5. Impatience with complex, long-term processes in general and the necessary relationship building needed foster the essential elements of effective collaboration including trust and mutual accountability.

In the face of the above issues and the inevitable complexity in seeking solutions through network approaches, we hypothesize that many are reverting to old ways of approaching their work.  In fact, over the past two years observed that the buzz about collective impact/networks seems to be butting up against the day-to-day challenge of translating ideals and principles into the systemic change many profess to be striving for.

Recognizing that the issue of collective action and how to apply it to solve systemic problems is not black and white, nor is there a single prescriptive approach, we posit that leadership is the “x factor” in this work.  Many of the elements of traditional leadership programs are worthy but in the case of collective action there is a difference.  It means proactively convening thought partners with the people who need help.  It’s having a bias for collective and bringing all the expertise to bear to tackle a problem.  It’s overcoming the thinking that “I’ve got to do it my way.”  It’s knowing what you don’t know.  It’s walking that fine line between process and getting stuff done.  It’s recognizing that relationships are the foundation of collective work and intentionally spending time on them.  In Maine there are examples of this kind of leadership, but it is modest.  A handful of funders are experimenting and a few individuals working in the nonprofit sector are actively utilizing collective action approaches, but no one is sticking their necks out very far despite the talk locally and even nationally.  The larger convening organizations in the State and across New England don’t seem to want to go beyond the talking stage and lead.  Some of our experience says just stay the course and continue working at the grass roots to build the practice, yet some of the political and funding dynamics beg for a much bigger step up in leadership.