Posted Monday, June 23, 2014 at 2:30 pm

This weekend, I had the pleasure of watching couples dance the tango in a public square in London. The intricacies of the dance, coupled with the individual styles of each dance partner made for an intriguing couple of hours. As each new song filled the square, the couples would wait for a few strands of the music and then proceed to move together. Often with their eyes closed, each couple moved around the dance floor. 

For those leading collective impact community change efforts, we know that this work, like the tango, is complex and non-linear. Collective impact often feels like a dance – one step forward and one step back with different leaders and followers interchanging around a circular dance floor. Metaphorically, we enter collective impact with our eyes closed and while we know the steps with the simple rules of collective impact (the five conditions), the context of our community is the real driver. Much like the music, space to dance in and partner(s), the community context needs to become the driver of collective impact efforts. 

The rhythm of the community, its readiness to act, the urgency of the issue and the connectedness of leaders enable collective efforts to either move fast or move slow. The capacity of our partners including their leadership, capacity to influence and willingness to take steps into a new way of working become essential elements in the dance. The blending of both the individual dance couple and the whole creates a circular interwoven mosaic of leaders, followers, connected and separate elements.

But what about this metaphor leads to change and impact? Visually, watching the dance is stunning. But does merely watching an event lead to community change? At some level, the answer is yes. The dancers and community shared a connection, beauty, art and expression. Recently, the Evaluating Collective Impact resource guides provided a series of baseline measure to consider for early stage collective impact work. These baseline measures fit well in this context including changes in the way individuals in the community were interacting and positive feedback through engagement.

But is this enough? Is this collective impact? It would be difficult to assess after just a few hours of observation, but there might be some conclusions to be drawn.

  • More than 100 individuals were drawn to the square to connect.
  • There were many different demographics represented both in the dance and as guests watching.
  • Each of the dancers was engaged in physical activity for a two hour period and healthier as a result; and,
  • This activity occurs weekly in this public square, drawing new people into the music and dance and increasing community connection and vitality.

Certainly, we would have to undertake a more thorough evaluation to get to impact, but my observation is that many of the elements of collective impact were present. 

So this metaphor, collective impact as a complex Tango, can weave and build community. It helps us consider our partners, our leadership and how we might dance together toward community change and impact.

To learn more about the complex tango of Collective Impact and how to scale up your community impact efforts, register to attend the Tamarack Institute’s first-ever Collective Impact Summit happening October 6-10, 2014 in Toronto, ON.


Nelson Enojo

technical assistance provider / consultant

Hello Liz, So fitting metaphor, so many dancers on the floor, dancing the collective impact rhythm. Let try to play the music for global warming and resilience so the vortex on the dance floor will become one change makers. Thank you so much Liz. Very inspiring observation.

Submitted by Nelson Enojo on Wed, 2014-06-25 22:54

Peter Watson

technical assistance provider / consultant

One way to take the metaphor further would be to watch the Tango from the balcony and observe the patterns that emerge within the mosaic you describe in this thoughtful piece. I believe one of the keys to mobilizing people through collective work, and one of the key ways to exercise leadership on behalf of a group involved in these efforts, is to identify and sometimes interrupt these patterns within the group. People often are so focused on their individual partners in the dance that they might not recognize the larger, sometimes unproductive patterns that emerge and may even be limiting their effectiveness.

Submitted by Peter Watson on Tue, 2014-07-01 11:25

Larry Gemmel

technical assistance provider / consultant

The Tango analogy was also used very appropriately in a recently published article in The Philanthropist by Lyse Brunet, describing her experiences over the past 20 years of implementing collective impact initiatives in Quebec, Canada. Learning to Tango on a Tightrope: Implementing a Collective Impact Approach

Submitted by Larry Gemmel on Fri, 2014-07-11 08:16