Making Meetings Work

Posted Wednesday, August 29, 2018 at 8:04 pm

One of the five core tenets or conditions of collective impact is “Continuous Communication,” which usually means meetings, lots of meetings. And let’s face it, most meetings suck. They don’t have to. There are some lessons we can apply to ensure that meetings are purposeful, engaging, and advance our work in ways that people anticipate with enthusiasm instead of dread.

I have worked with a few groups to improve meetings and have seen the results that arise from clear purpose, structure, and culture. I’ve also worked with groups where I did not emphasize this and wish I had. Often this happens where there is fear or skepticism among organizers that people with formal power will resist meetings that are perceived as inefficient, less controlled, or even “touchy feely” (we can’t ask the CEO of this foundation to sit through an icebreaker!). I have also seen staff hold on to legacy behaviors about “how we do things here” and resist moving outside their normal boxes, again with a fear often that they might offend their higher ups’ established ways. In every case where I haven’t pushed a group to do this work, we have regretted it later. And I’ve found those with formal authority often appreciate well designed, well facilitated, purposeful, and even fun meetings.

In this paper, I will share examples from two groups I worked with to stimulate more engagement, inclusion, and effectiveness in their meetings. My work blends lessons from my time at Public Allies, from the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s Results Count framework (formerly Results-Based Leadership), and practices I have learned in visits and consultations with other groups. My caveat is that the examples I share are not intended as a recipe to copy, but samples of how to solve common problems that make meetings suck. Form should follow function, so groups should structure their groups and design their meetings and engagement based on the results they are pursuing and the collaborative they are organizing.

Building Trust

First, it is important to note that for any team or group, building trust is an essential first step. It often begins by developing shared values, ground-rules, and expectations for members. This also means people have to build relationships, getting to know each other’s backgrounds, experience, motivations, and the individual, organizational, and other assets they bring to the table.

The absence of conflict is not a positive measure of trust and collaboration. There are two kinds of conflict:

(a) constructive conflict: we debate ideas, discuss differences, work through competing interests, offer constructive feedback, and hold each other accountable; and

(b) destructive conflict: we go to the parking lot and complain about people in the meeting and what happened – nothing good comes of this.

A good way to measure trust is if the parking lot conversations start happening in the room. Difficult conversations are a practice important to a team taking on big challenges. Trust building is an ongoing process and relationships and transparency are the keys to make it work. There are many organizational development tools for building and repairing trust – it is work that should be taken on intentionally and not just assumed.

One way to improve trust and transparency is to surface and acknowledge interests at the table. A leader of an organization is hired by their board to advance the interests of the organization, and it is not wrong that they hold those interests. Those interests must be named, however, and possible conflicts with others’ interests or the group’s larger interest should be acknowledged. Furthermore, it is important to surface and name dynamics in the room. If one organization received a grant others were pursuing and is resented, talk about it. If there are two groups that are highly competitive, name that. Everyone knows that these elephants are in the room already, so surface them to create a culture of honesty, transparency, and greater trust rather than increasing tension and dysfunction.

Diagnosing the Problem

One group was having challenges with engagement, commitment, and accountability within their group. I conducted interviews with the members. I heard the following complaints:

  • We are unclear on our roles and how decisions are made;
  • We get too much information. We can’t tell what is most necessary or important;
  • We are too siloed. Everyone sits with the same folks and people still think mostly about their turf instead of the whole;
  • Lots of reporting, little engagement. Meetings are like church. We sit and listen. The brain power in our room is not engaged;
  • Power dynamics are at play. Meetings are dominated by a few voices, often those with the most authority;
  • There is no follow up. We need more accountability to ensure decisions and work we do is followed up on. We make decisions and they go away.

Based on the feedback, I thought that any design of their meetings should include:

  1. Clarity about roles and expectations of members;
  2. Attention to room design, composition of the committee, and seating;
  3. More effective facilitation;
  4. More effective meeting design: (a) clear purpose and results for each meeting; (b) curate what participants need to know, not what staff/chairs want participants to know; (c) engage the full brain power – perspectives, expertise, experience - of the room; (d) Manage time effectively and efficiently; and (e) ensure commitments are fulfilled and people are held and hold each other accountable;
  5. A clear process to prepare, debrief, evaluate, and follow up on each meeting.

1. Clear roles and expectations

It is helpful to have a Roles, Responsibilities, and Values document that members give input to and then literally sign their agreement on. This should be a living document referenced regularly and the items or at least the values should be posted at each meeting to remind people of their agreement and accountability.

The Roles, Responsibility, and Values document should first specify the purpose of the group, the membership (who can be members and how do they become members), the authority of the team (which decisions can they make; which require others’ approval), and how decisions are made within the group. Then it should specify the responsibilities of members and the values the group will strive to practice.

Some of the responsibilities agreed to by this client (this committee oversaw four strategy workgroups) included:

  • Provide feedback, approve, operationalize, and prioritize strategies that emerge from strategy workgroups, ensuring rigorous results-based progress on goals;
  • Connect dots and align strategies and programs among our four goals;
  • Ensure that big strategic decisions are grounded in implementation realities and the actual lives of children and families;
  • Capture, communicate, and harvest learning from stories of success and impact;
  • Share the inevitable challenges, mistakes, and failures that will happen in pursuit of our goals we may continuous learn, improve, and adapt to advance our goals;
  • Fulfill commitments to progress on agreed upon strategies, programs, and results, and hold networks, staff, and partners accountable for our commitments

There are a few ways to help groups develop their roles and responsibilities. Two activities I’ve found helpful are:

1) TRIZ from Liberating Structures. Have people work at their tables and give them these tasks in order (only reveal one step at a time):

  • Make a list of the things you could do to create the worst collaboration possible, one that was miserable to participate in and will for sure fail;
  • After gathering a sample of the lists at various tables, ask them if they have experienced any of the items on the list before? Be brutally honest.
  • What are some values, ground-rules, and responsibilities you could put in place to prevent the things from the first list from happening in this group

2) Especially if people have had a jaded experience with the group, invite them to identify “what would have to be true to commit to meeting regularly with this group on this initiative?” This prompt allows people to define what they need and facilitators can use this input to propose back roles, responsibilities, and values.

The key point is that the group should be clear about its purpose and authority, and should define its own culture. Facilitators and leadership must ensure that these values, responsibilities, and ground-rules are abided by in the design, work, and accountability of the group. It helps when groups post their initiative results, meeting results, and groundrules in the front at each meeting. It shows that these are important and can be referred to during meetings to keep the group on task and on agreed upon behaviors and practices.

2. Attention to Room Design, Composition, and Seating

Long boardroom tables or large rectangles do not inspire active engagement; they inspire posturing, grandstanding, and wallflowering. They work best for meetings organized around reports with minimal time for questions and discussion, but not much else. They allow those with authority and the loudest voices to dominate. They take forever to get around conversations with lots of hands in the air, stress, and waiting. They silence introverts. They deny relationships and intimacy. They allow people to sit in cliques and hold side conversations. It focuses on formality, authority, and existing relationships, rather than intimacy, inclusion, and collaboration.

It is best to seat people in smaller tables of 4-6 so that they will connect with each other and see the space as a working, collaborative space instead of a formal board meeting type space. If you want engagement, even split a group of 10-15 people into 2 or 3 tables and you will get a different dynamic.

If power dynamics, cliques, or inclusion are issues in the group, assigning seats may be a solution. If you have a person with authority who talks too much, seat them with someone who can balance them and ensure others are heard. In fact, you can ask that other person to play that role if the leader with authority is not self-aware (if they are, tell them what you are doing). Keep people who are likely to hold side conversations at different tables. Make the tables diverse by race, gender, and role in the community, and allow people to engage with new voices. While some may resist being told where to sit – usually those who want to talk mainly to people they know and hold side conversations – the group will benefit by discussions among members with diverse backgrounds, experience, and roles. Relationships matter, create opportunities for different conversations and connections.

3. Facilitation

Facilitation needs to be planned and not performed casually. It is a servant leadership role – in service to the group members and the group goals. The formal leader of the group may be able to facilitate, but it may be better for them to act as host and participate (and watch for dynamics in the room). The facilitator’s role should be neutral and distinguished from the authority role with the following responsibilities:

  • Be intentional and transparent so people know where you are taking them, inform them about why you are doing it this way, and share your intentions behind questions and design;
  • Hold neutral – your job is to engage the group’s wisdom not push your own agenda;
  • Hold appreciative openness – welcome ideas and thank people for contributions;
  • Paraphrase back – make sure you are capturing the essence of what people are saying;
  • Capture the paraphrased summaries on a flip chart or delegate recording. If someone else is recording, give them time to write down your paraphrases and hold on calling someone or slow down if they get behind;
  • Name and address dynamics. If someone looks like they don’t agree, is not speaking, or may feel cut off, ask them. If someone is dominating, let them know. If there are micro-aggressions in the room, help people see and address them. If there are competing interests at play, name them since everyone knows. Then engage the group in solving them;
  • Keep an eye on the clock and manage time and be direct and transparent when choosing to alter the schedule so it is a choice and not a slippery slope.

Time management is especially important to this role. I often design meetings with 10 minutes of give so that I have some flexibility to adapt, but try my best to stay on schedule. When I make changes in agenda time, I make the choice transparently or offer group a choice to change the agenda or not. If people know that the meeting starts on time, they will put more effort into showing up on time. If they know meetings are managed well and always end on time and achieve the intended results, they will leave early less often and feel their time is respected.

4. Agenda Design: purpose, curated reports, engaged brain power, time management, accountability

First and importantly, if the meeting does not have a clear purpose and results that will advance the initiative, don’t meet. The meeting is not important other than as a means to achieve relationship-building and results. It is better to cancel a regularly scheduled meeting that has weak goals than to host a meeting just because it is on the schedule. Every meeting should have clear goals and results that members will see logically advance the results of the initiative. Sometimes meetings can be longer and shorter rather than always the same amount of time. And sometimes meetings should be canceled if there are not clear results that will advance the initiative – people complain a lot more about a useless meeting than getting two hours back on their schedule. Form should always follow function (purpose and intended results).

This group met bi-monthly and oversaw 4 strategy workgroups and a evaluation/data council. In order to design meetings that had clear purpose, curated what people needed to know, engaged the full brain power, managed time effectively, and held people accountable, we established the following template:

  • Welcome and Check-ins (20 Min): The leader will welcome people, review the results we are pursuing as an initiative, the results for the meeting itself, and the agenda for the meeting. Each are previously recorded on flip chart paper up on the wall.  The facilitator will then begin by reviewing commitments made at the last meeting and reporting or inviting reports on how those commitments have been fulfilled or not. Facilitator then offers a check-in question and each member of the group stands, introduces themselves, and answers it. Icebreakers that are both fun and help people get to know each other better are ideal. It is also great if you can ask people how they are today (I often ask what their battery strength is: 0-4 bars) to capture if anyone is off their game so their participation dynamics will be noted. One thing I like to do is lead the whole room in saying hi to each person by first name as they introduce themselves – it is silly, but it brings up energy in room as people often laugh and helps make sure people are learning each others’ names.
  • Team report outs (20 Min): This group had four strategy teams and past meetings were dominated by their reports. We decided going forward that two teams would report at each meeting. Really focus on delineating between “nice to know” and “need to know.” People often think everything they do is important and want all of their efforts acknowledged, but reporting should be about the group’s needs not the presenter’s needs. We gave presenters 5 powerpoint slides and 10 minutes. We made a template for the slides to limit the amount of words and font size. The five slides were: (a) their goals/strategies; (b) headlines on any progress they are making on goals/strategies; (c) challenges they are facing currently; (d) an image they can tell a success story about; and (e) a question they would like peer support on from the whole group. The goal leaders submit their slides to the facilitator and chairs a few days before meeting for feedback and to tighten their message and questions. If they have more info, they can send the group pre-reads or leave them with a handout.
  • Peer consult (25 Min): Depending on the two groups’ request for peer support, we divide the questions among the teams. We did this three different ways in three meetings: (1) we assigned different questions to different tables; (2) we invited tables to choose a question to work on; and (3) we assigned the questions to tables and invited people to move to the table that has the question they want to work on. Each worked fine. The goal is to get deep engagement across siloes to support the workgroups. After 15 minutes in small groups, draw out the main feedback and capture it. Goal leaders then voice commitments to how they will follow up on the support they received, and those commitments are captured on the flip chart.
  • Strategy/Alignment Conversations (45 Min): The staff and leadership with input from the group identify 1-2 major strategic conversations for each meeting that will advance the group’s work. Examples include: deciding funding allocation, approving a new evaluation framework, revisiting a strategy that is not meeting performance measures, and discussing legislative initiatives. Again, the framing should be 10 minutes or less and then small group discussion followed by the whole group. Pre-reads can also be helpful in setting the table, and other interpersonal or context setting preparation may be involved in fraught topics that require difficult or uncomfortable conversations.
  • Commitments and Follow up (10 Min). All commitments from the discussions should be noted and clear: what by whom by when. There should be clarity about what was discussed today that needs to be shared with other groups or the collaborative generally. Finally the group should be asked if we accomplished the stated goals for the meeting with people putting their thumbs up, down, or sideways. We ask those who aren’t thumbs up what would have improved the meeting and our ability to achieve stated goals.

This is one example, and I repeat “form follows function.” And the group has evolved their meeting practice since then. The key is to design meetings that help the group advance its work and results. This design captured all of the things the group wanted to be able to do better – break down siloes, limit reports, engage brain power, manage time better, and improve accountability. The evaluations (see below) showed that members loved the new design and felt the meetings were substantially more effective and productive than in the past. Your design may seek to address other elements important to your group. The key is always designing to results.

5. Prepare, debrief, evaluate, follow up

Meeting Preparation and design should be thoughtful and specific, not just a quick agenda thrown together the day before. I suggest using an annotated agenda I learned from my colleague Marian Urquilla called a “wireframe” with three columns: Column 1 includes the topic, start time, duration, and result for each meeting item; Column 2 should specifically describe what will happen during that time; and Column 3 notes any support or needs for that time such as handouts, flipchart recording, etc. (Find an example listed here in the appendices document.)

Chairs and staff should all have this wireframe, and know the game plan in detail. Ideally you run through it with the team beforehand so everyone knows the run of show. Being well prepared will help you stay focused on results. This will also help you plan for and manage time effectively – watch your timings and adapt as necessary to ensure you accomplish meeting goals and end on time.

Evaluate the meeting. Especially if you are working to improve or change the way the group meets, invite group members to fill out a quick evaluation to gauge the meeting design’s effectiveness. I don’t think this should be done every meeting (the thumbs up, down, sideways can often be helpful enough), but perhaps every quarter, semi-annually, or annually after you evaluate the first few meetings of a new format. For the meetings we evaluated, we put the meeting results on top of the page, and then asked participants to answer each question with a 1 (poor) to 5 (excellent) scale and leave comments:

  • Did the meeting achieve stated goals?
  • Did the meeting format work overall? Do you think it made better use of your time to advance our goals?
  • Did the reports provide sufficient, relevant, and important information that helped you assess their progress and see where you can help?
  • Did you find the peer consult a constructive use of your time?
  • Were the strategic conversations productive?
  • Any other feedback or ideas?

Debrief Meetings immediately afterward. The facilitator and other key staff should quickly review the evaluation feedback, discuss how the meeting went, and discuss any individual or group dynamics they noticed in the room. Specifically, who might need a follow up conversation? It is also helpful to discuss who was not at the meeting and whether any direct follow up is required with them.

It is also important to follow up from meetings so people are getting work done in between and know they will be accountable.  Follow up also includes relationship building, working on dynamics in the group, and connecting with people who did not attend. As far as follow up on the work, another group I worked with has done this really well (See Appendix 2 in the appendices document here.). The backbone staff sends regular reminders to members between meetings listing commitments, and reaches out directly to individuals who’ve made commitments to offer support and make sure they are prepared for the next meeting. It makes it far more likely work gets done, and sets the standard that if you commit, you will be accountable. This helps build momentum between meetings so real progress is being made. I call it Normalizing Accountability in the Group or NAG.

If you have built a strong structure and culture for your meetings, it is important to orient new members to your process. New members should understand the roles, responsibilities, and values of the group, and sign the document as other members have after reviewing them with staff. They should understand the meeting format, and the importance of the meetings to the success of the collaborative. They should be oriented about who the other members are and any important dynamics in the group. And they should understand what decisions have been made to date and why, and what challenges and opportunities the group is currently facing in order to achieve its results. A clear, consistent meeting structure and culture will help new members catch up and join the group more quickly.


This is not an exact road map, but a set of examples that may help you design meetings that work. Every group should begin with clarity about their purpose, roles, and responsibilities. Meetings should be designed with specific results that make real progress on initiative goals, provide essential information, engage the diverse brain power and resources of the group, make efficient use of people’s time, and engage commitment (and accountability) to the tasks necessary to move goals forward. Developing and managing this kind of culture and process might feel unnatural or forced at first. There may be resistance. But in my experience, a well designed and facilitated process that gets real work done and moves results forward inspires more and deeper commitment.

What do you think? Have a best practice for effective meetings? Share your recommendations in the comments below.

Want to learn more from Paul about how to hold effective meetings? Watch the webinar Making Meetings Work.


Building Leadership Capacity for Collective Impact

Cultivating leaders within the backbone and among partners is critical for the success of a collective impact effort. What can we learn from initiatives that have built leadership capacity within their backbone, their partnerships, and other community stakeholders?

Join us for this Collective Impact Forum Virtual Coffee, Building Leadership Capacity for Collective Impact. We're talking with Ellen Kahler, Executive Director at the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (VSJF), about their experience helping strengthen leadership skills across their initiative. VSJF serves as the backbone for Vermont Farm to Plate (F2P), a statewide collective impact initiative to strengthen Vermont’s food system.

This virtual coffee conversation was held on July 17, 2018 from 3:00 pm – 4:00 pm ET.

Virtual Coffee Resources:

Presentation: Download a copy of the presentation used for this virtual coffee at the link on the right of this page. (Logging in to your Collective Impact Forum account will be necessary to download materials.)

Vermont Farm to Plate was one of 25 sites that participated in the research study When Collective Impact has an Impact. This new study, more than a year in the making, looks at the question of “To what extent and under what conditions does the collective impact approach contribute to systems and population changes?”

Listen to past Collective Impact Virtual Coffee Chats

Virtual Coffee archive


Collective Impact Forum Podcast 007 - Fireside Chat with Policylink's Michael McAfee and Collective Impact Forum's Paul Schmitz

The Collective Impact Forum podcast will share with you stories, insights, and expertise from those in the field working on collective impact efforts. By working across sectors to share experiences and knowledge, together we can help accelerate the effectiveness and further adoption of the collective impact approach.

This episode features a conversation between two leaders in the collective impact field, Michael McAfee, President of PolicyLink, and Paul Schmitz, Senior Advisor to the Collective Impact Forum. In this fireside chat, they discuss what’s needed to build a culture of collaboration, equity, and accountability within collective impact efforts.

This fireside chat was held on October 18, 2016 at the workshop, Champions for Change: Leading a Backbone Organization for Collective Impact.

Resources Referenced in this Episode

Collective Impact Forum Podcast Episode 007

0 -1:42: Episode Introduction
1:43 - 51:40: Fireside Chat with Policylink's Michael McAfee and Collective Impact Forum's Paul Schmitz
51:41 - 52:06: Outro

Looking for more podcasts?

Listen to more Forum Podcasts

Music featured in this episode:

"Light Through" by Kevin MacLeod (
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0


Seeking Cross Sector Changemakers for the 2017 Presidio Institute Fellows Cohort!

Posted 3 years ago at 4:05 pm

Are you working to solve some of the toughest social, economic, and environmental problems we face in the world today?  Are you passionate about improving your community?  Are you seeking a professional development opportunity that will support your personal development, build your cross sector leadership skills, and advance your collaborative work?  Then you should consider applying to be a 2017 Presidio Institute Fellow!

The Presidio Institute Fellows program is 9-month, cohort-based learning experience in cross sector leadership and collaboration. Fellows are mid- and late-career professionals working across the nation in business, non-profits, philanthropy, academia, and government. What do Fellows have in common? No matter what sector they work in, they’re passionate about solving tough problems in their communities, throughout the nation, and across the world! And the Fellowship is an opportunity to grow their capacities, learn alongside others, and advance a cross sector project they are working on back home. The program aims to help Fellows build their practice of cross sector leadership in a number of ways, including:

  • Three, 5-day, in-person learning experiences in San Francisco (April 2-7), Washington, DC (July 17-21), and New York City (October 16-20);
  • Online learning and coaching opportunities before and between in-person learning experiences.
  • A network of Fellows, alumni, and faculty-practitioners that are working to solve some of the toughest social, economic, and environmental problems we face today.

The Presidio Institute’s goal is to facilitate an experience where all Fellows:

  • Grow in their personal leadership development;
  • Build their cross sector leadership skills in building teams, solving problems, and achieving impact;
  • Learn about a range of practices and models of cross sector collaboration;
  • Apply what they are learning to advance the work of their cross sector project; and
  • Develop strong, supportive, and candid relationships with one another, alumni and faculty.

The 2017 Presidio Institute Fellows cohort will be made up of 24 individuals.  Fellows are selected through a competitive process that starts with submitting a completed application packet which includes an:

  • Online application form which includes uploading your resume and describing a cross sector project you propose to work on during the Fellowship.
  • Online recommendation form completed by someone who knows you and your work well (one recommendation is required, and up to two recommendations will be accepted.)

To apply, visit:

To learn more about the Fellows program, what the Institute looks for in candidates, the application and selection process, as well as program fees and scholarships, visit:


  • Earlybird Application Deadline: Monday, August 15, 2016, 11:59 pm PT.  Candidates who have submitted their completed application packet (application and recommendation) by this deadline are eligible for a discounted program fees.
  • Final Application Deadline: Tuesday, September 13, 2016, 11:59 pm PT. Candidates who have submitted their completed application packet (application and recommendation) by this deadline are eligible for the program paying the full fee.


Throughout the application period, the Presidio Institute hosts info webinars about the Fellows program which provide an overview of the program and application process AND feature an alum sharing their reflections on their experience in the program.  

  • July 28 Webinar featuring Allison Clements, National Resources Defense Council and 2015 Fellow
  • August 2 Webinar featuring Marisol Morales, University of LaVerne and 2015 Fellow
  • August 11 Webinar featuring Robin Brulé, Nusenda Credit Union, Chief Strategist, Innovation Central, City of Albuquerque Living Cities Integration Initiative and 2015 Fellow
  • August 18 Webinar featuring Charmaine Peart-HoSang, Year Up and 2015 Fellow
  • August 25 Webinar featuring Kirsten Breckenridge, Youthshift Collective Impact Initiative in New Orleans and 2014 Fellow
  • September 6 Webinar featuring Jamie Horst, McKesson Corporation and 2015 Fellow
  • September 12 Webinar featuring Noel Anderson​​​, NYU Steinhardt and 2014 Fellow

To register for one of these webinars, visit: 


Confronting Power Dynamics and Engaging the Community's Voice in Collective Impact

Plenary discussion at the 2016 Collective Impact Convening with Sili Savusa – White Center Community Development Association, Paul Schmitz – Collective Impact Forum, LaShawndra Vernon – Milwaukee Lifecourse Initiative for Healthy Families (LIHF) Collaborative, and Akilah Watkins-Butler – Center for the Study of Social Policy. This session was held on June 8, 2016.

About this session: What are pitfalls and principles of practice in effectively integrating community voices into collective impact? How can you involve communities who have historically been left out of decision-making processes? How should funders, backbone leaders, and other collective impact partners engage stakeholders in sensitive conversations about race, class and culture? This session will address these questions and more in a discussion of when and how to confront power dynamics and authentically engage community voices in collective impact. Hear local and national perspectives on community engagement, and engage with your peers on what it takes to achieve community engagement as a core component of collective impact.

Getting Back to the Purpose of Collective Impact

Posted Monday, May 23, 2016 at 2:19 pm

My Aunt Janice’s biscuits are legendary. They are fluffy, buttery and light. Whenever we visit her in Alabama, we stop by to gorge ourselves on these delectable treats. I recently had a hankering for the biscuits so I asked for the recipe. While I’m not a huge fan of cooking, I don’t mind baking occasionally. The recipe only has four ingredients- flour, buttermilk, shortening, and butter. Simple, right?

I bought the ingredients and cooked a batch of biscuits. Even though I followed the recipe to the letter, my biscuits turned out hard as rocks. I was so disappointed that I called my sister who had recently mastered the biscuit recipe. She shared with me that while the recipe was straightforward and the ingredients were simple, the way to master the biscuits wasn’t. You had to commit to improving them over time, which means asking Aunt Janice questions along the way, and improving my technique based on what works best for me.

In many ways, driving social change requires a similar approach. I thought of this biscuit story while reading the exchange between Tom Wolff, Mark Kramer and John Kania about the criticisms of collective impact. My failure in baking biscuits illustrates a similar failure of those of us who support collective impact as an approach to creating collaborative change: We can get too focused on principles and theoretical frameworks when instead we should be encouraging and supporting a long term commitment to continuous learning and improvement.

I’ve mentioned before that collective impact is just a tool in service of continuous improvement for large-scale change. Most important are the people wielding the tool and the result they are working to achieve. At Living Cities, we are not advocates of collective impact. We do not consider criticisms of collective impact an affront to what’s good and right in the world. In fact, we have worked closely with leaders within the Collective Impact Forum to proactively provide more guidance on areas sorely missing like authentic and effective community engagement, increased investment in leaders, and an intentional focus on race, equity and inclusion.

Living Cities supports leaders to apply the principles of collective impact for one reason only: we believe the scale and scope of our nation’s most pressing problems require cross-sector leaders to work together to solve them. And while the elements of collective impact may seem deceptively simple, the hard work is really in what it takes to achieve the shared result. It would be tempting to rant about all the shortcomings of collective impact. But to me, that would be like yelling at the oven because of my failed biscuits. It is hard work to wield the tools effectively, and there is no manual in the world that will make that work easier.

So what have we seen help make up for the shortcomings of the tool of collective impact? One is creating communities of practice where leaders learn from and with each other on the path to social change. In fact, Living Cities is a co-catalyst of the Collective Impact Forum because over 15,000 people use this platform to virtually learn from and with each other every day to drive change in their cities. The second thing is learning in public. At Living Cities, we call this “open sourcing social change”. When community leaders are vulnerable enough to share what is not working, they tap into the collective problem solving that makes change possible. Lastly, we need an ongoing commitment to continuous improvement. Each community must relentlessly ask itself what is working, what is not working and why in service of the shared result. And communities must diligently channel its resources towards what does work and abandon what does not.

This work is hard and takes diligence and care and feeding. And while I must be honest that I wasn’t willing to put in the time to make better biscuits, I am committed to doing whatever it takes to improve the lives and opportunities of people across this country.

Continue the Discussion in the Following Posts:

Ten Places Where Collective Impact Gets It Wrong by Tom Wolff (Tom Wolff & Associates)

Advancing the Practice of Collective Impact by John Kania and Mark Kramer (FSG)

What do you think? Share your thoughts and comments below.

Advancing the Practice of Collective Impact

Posted Wednesday, May 4, 2016 at 1:24 pm

We appreciate Tom Wolff’s critique of collective impact and the insights he shares in his recent essay. Wolff’s years of experience in the field, and the perspectives he offers, are a valuable contribution to the arena of collective, collaborative change. We’re grateful that he’s agreed to re-post his essay alongside our response in order to create what we hope will be a productive conversation.

Since writing the original article on collective impact in 2011, we and others have written about many of the dimensions that Wolff articulates in his published editorial in the Global Journal of Community Psychology Practice, a peer-reviewed professional journal. In particular, we agree with Wolff’s aspirations for how collective impact can lead to better results, particularly for those whom collaborative efforts seek to serve. We share his eloquently expressed hope for "improved applications of Collective Impact” to emerge:"

  • "where those most affected by the issues lead the effort and share the decision making and the power;
  • where the collaborative action is based on an understanding of the social, political, and social justice context in which the issues of the community are embedded, and addresses these issues head on; and
  • where the Collective Impact work is more thoroughly based on the existing fields of coalition building and community development, learning from the acquired knowledge, experience, and available tools."

As Wolff’s critique was published close to the five-year anniversary of our original article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR), we want to take the opportunity here to share some reflections on how our thinking has evolved, based on conversations with other practitioners and our own work supporting collective impact efforts.

It is difficult to know exactly why the article struck such a resonant chord. Some have told us that the term "collective impact" and the five conditions gave them a way to frame the collaborative efforts they’d been doing for decades and enabled them to find and learn from colleagues doing similar work. For others who were newer to comprehensive community change, the construct provided an accessible foundation that allowed them to get started in collaborating in new, cross-sector ways.

As documented by this research from Columbia University’s Teachers College, the initial article has helped elevate the importance of collaborative cross sector activity to address social problems. Unfortunately, some people have interpreted the five conditions of collective impact as a recipe or formula that is sufficient to engage in the deep and nuanced work of collaborative change. As we and many others have written since the initial article was published, while the five conditions are important foundational elements of collaborative change, they do not, in and of themselves, provide a complete and comprehensive playbook for achieving collaborative, collective change at scale.

Additionally, since the initial collective impact article was published, we have grown in appreciation of the many diverse perspectives, voices, and experiences that are deepening the conversation and practice around collective impact. We most appreciate those who have challenged dimensions of collective impact that they feel are misinterpreted, not fully explained, or flat out wrong assumptions made by some who state they are doing collective impact. Two areas in particular, equity and community engagement (both highlighted by Wolff), have benefitted from significant contributions from many practitioners and academics in the field. Here are just a very few of the recent perspectives on community engagement and equity in collective impact that we have found to be compelling and helpful.

Since the initial article was published, our writings on collective impact have focused on conveying, as Wolff’s published editorial does, the additional dimensions that are important to this work. In 2014, we and a number of other collective impact practitioners published Collective Insights for Collective Impact to address what we saw emerging at that time as important implementation dimensions that had not been articulated in the original article. More recently, in collaboration with our partners in the Collective Impact Forum, we published the Collective Impact Principles of Practice to highlight a number of the most critical dimensions of implementation that effective practitioners in the field are identifying as essential to the collaborative change process. Additionally, here are several of our own follow-up publications on the practice of collective impact that are consistent with the observations that Wolff makes:

  • Collective, collaborative change requires a unique form of leadership. "The Dawn of System Leadership," co-authored by Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, and John Kania, provides perspective on the leadership capacities needed to catalyze collective leadership in others. FSG and the Collective Impact Forum are continuing to prioritize the topic of leadership in collective impact, building on the work of academics such as Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, and Ron Heifitz, as well as practitioner based efforts such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s program for Results-Based Leadership.
  • Collective impact initiatives function in highly complex contexts in which overreliance on linear approaches to change are likely to fail. In "Embracing Emergence," we share ideas for how collective impact initiatives can support participants on a journey of embracing an adaptive way of working that requires an iterative process of collective seeing, learning, and doing. Since the process and results of collective impact are emergent rather than predetermined, unforeseen opportunities present new solutions. Our thinking in this space has been deeply informed by complexity and social innovation experts such as Brenda Zimmerman, Frances Westley, Michael Quinn Patton, David Snowden, David Stroh, and many others.
  • To achieve population level change, collective impact initiatives must pursue system and policy change strategies. In FSG’s Guide to Evaluating Collective Impact, we present a theory of change for how collective impact initiatives achieve scale results, and we emphasize systems change as a key lever, providing a number of indicators of systems change to encourage pursuit of such work. Additionally, FSG frequently presents on the difference between systems level strategies and program level strategies in collective impact efforts, and the importance of focusing on the system level to achieve scale change.  A July 2014 blog by colleagues at FSG, "What are Strategies," identifies several categories of systems level strategies that collective impact practitioners can pursue in their work.

In closing, we agree that it is important to place collective impact (both the initial article and subsequent knowledge and practice development under the collective impact name) in context with the broader, multi-decades movement and evolution around collective, collaborative change. Wolff’s compilation of the best of writing about comprehensive community-wide collaboration from the last several decades represents a wealth of useful information for the field and we will ensure they are highlighted here on The Collective Impact Forum.

As Tom Wolff and others (including FSG) have noted, the publication of our article five years ago was far from the beginning of the movement around comprehensive community change. Neither do we expect it to be the final chapter. As this movement continues to evolve, we look forward to additional contributions such as Wolff’s published editorial (and the myriad of contributions we list here, as well as many others) that can deepen understanding of how best to practice collective impact in a manner that leads to a more just and equitable world.

Continue the Discussion in the Following Posts:

Ten Places Where Collective Impact Gets It Wrong by Tom Wolff (Tom Wolff & Associates)

Getting Back to the Purpose of Collective Impact by Tynesia Boyea-Robinson (Living Cities)

What do you think? Share your thoughts and comments below.

Collective Impact Principles of Practice: Putting Collective Impact into Action

Posted Sunday, April 17, 2016 at 5:09 pm

We have been inspired watching the field of collective impact progress over the past five years, as thousands of practitioners, funders, and policymakers around the world employ the approach to help solve complex social problems at a large scale. The field’s understanding of what it takes to put the collective impact approach into practice continues to evolve through the contributions of many who are undertaking the deep work of collaborative social change, and their successes build on decades of work around effective cross-sector collaboration. Accomplished practitioners of collective impact continue to affirm the critical importance of achieving population-level change in the five conditions of collective impact that John Kania and Mark Kramer originally identified in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in winter 2011. (For an explanation of the conditions, see the end of this post.) Many practitioners tell us that the framework developed in the original article has helped to provide the field with a shared definition and useful language to describe core elements of a rigorous and disciplined, yet flexible and organic, approach to addressing complex problems at scale.

Successful collective impact practitioners also observe, however, that while the five conditions Kania and Kramer initially identified are necessary, they are not sufficient to achieve impact at the population level. Informed by lessons shared among those who are implementing the approach in the field, this post outlines additional principles of practice that we believe can guide practitioners about how to successfully put collective impact into action. While many of these principles are not unique to collective impact, we have seen that the combination of the five conditions and these practices contributes to meaningful population-level change. We hope that these principles help funders, practitioners, and policymakers consider what it takes to apply the collective impact approach, and that they will bolster existing efforts to overcome challenges and roadblocks in their work. We also hope these principles can help guide those who aspire toward collective impact, but may not yet be implementing the approach fully, to identify possible changes that might increase their odds of success. As we continue to apply the conditions and principles of collective impact, we fully expect that, over time, our shared understanding of what constitutes good practice will evolve further.

1. Design and implement the initiative with a priority placed on equity. For collective impact initiatives to achieve sustainable improvements in communities, it is critical that these initiatives address the systemic structures and practices that create barriers to equitable outcomes for all populations, particularly along the lines of race and class. To that end, collective impact initiatives must be intentional in their design from the very outset to ensure that an equity lens is prominent throughout their governance, planning, implementation, and evaluation. In designing and implementing collective impact with a focus on equity, practitioners must disaggregate data and develop strategies that focus on improving outcomes for affected populations.

2. Include community members in the collaborative. Members of the community—those whose lives are most directly and deeply affected by the problem addressed by the initiative—must be meaningfully engaged in the initiative’s governance, planning, implementation, and evaluation. Community members can bring crucial (and sometimes overlooked) perspectives to governance bodies and decision-making tables, can contribute to refining the collective impact initiative’s evolving goals, strategies, and indicators, can help co-create and implement solutions that are rooted in lived experience and have the potential for significant uptake, can participate in building communities’ capacity to lead and sustain change, and can participate in data interpretation and continuous learning processes. Sometimes, decision-makers or other stakeholders may inadvertently face power dynamics or other structural barriers that can hinder particular partners from participating candidly and fully; true inclusion requires intentional examination of group needs and processes to ensure that all stakeholders have full opportunity to contribute to the process. Engaging community in these ways helps collective impact efforts address the issues most important to those most directly affected, builds capacity and enables community participation in and ownership of solutions, and helps embed the work in the community so that it will be more effective and sustainable.

3. Recruit and co-create with cross-sector partners. Collective impact collaboratives are created by and composed of actors from across sectors and parts of the community, including nonprofits, government, private sector, philanthropy, and residents. While not all initiatives will engage all sectors actively at the same time, collaboratives made up of only one or two types of actors (e.g., all nonprofits, all funders) do not have the diversity of actors required to create the systems-level view that contributes to a robust collective impact initiative. These cross-sector partners, who all have a role to play in the solution, share in co-creating the common agenda, identifying shared measures, and implementing the work required to achieve the effort’s goals.

4. Use data to continuously learn, adapt, and improve. Collective impact is not a solution, but rather a collaborative problem-solving process. This process requires partners to remain aware of changes in context, to collect and learn from data, to openly share information and observations with others, and to adapt their strategies quickly in response to an evolving environment. To accomplish this, initiatives should have clear learning priorities, build strong structures and processes for learning, and create a learning culture that enables the group to use meaningful, credible, and useful qualitative and quantitative data for continuous learning and strategic refinement. Many initiatives find it valuable to use a disciplined and formalized process to guide their use of data.

5. Cultivate leaders with unique system leadership skills. For collective impact initiatives to achieve transformational change, leaders must possess strong facilitation, management, and convening skills. They must be able to create a holding space for people to come together and work out their disparate viewpoints, they must possess the capacity to foster shared meaning and shared aspirations among participants, they must be able to help participants understand the complexity and non-linearity of system-level change, they must be dedicated to the health of the whole and willing to change their own organizations in service of the group’s agenda, and they must be adept at building relationships and trust among collaborators. These system leadership skills are essential for the backbone, and also other leaders in the collaborative such as steering committee members, community leaders, and action team leaders.

6. Focus on program and system strategies. The mutually reinforcing activities that the initiative takes on to achieve its goals should focus on collective program and system change strategies rather than individual programs or organizations. System strategies include strategies that increase communication and coordination across organizations, change the practices and behavior of professionals and beneficiaries, shift social and cultural norms, improve services system wide (by spreading techniques that already work within the community across organizations, or by bringing a new evidence-based practice into the community), and change policies.

7. Build a culture that fosters relationships, trust, and respect across participants. Collective impact partnerships require participants to come to a common understanding of the problem and shared goals, to work together and align work in new ways, and to learn from each other. Authentic interpersonal relationships, trust, respect, and inclusion are key elements of the culture that is required for this difficult work to occur. The backbone and other initiative leaders must be proactive in their efforts to create this culture.

8. Customize for local context. While the five conditions are consistent across collective impact initiatives, and initiatives benefit a great deal by learning from each other, customizing the initiative for the local context is essential. Initiatives can do their best work when they deeply understand the problem they are trying to solve locally—both from the data and input from the community and from understanding the existing work and coalitions that may be working on similar issues. Customizing the work to fit the local community context enables the coalition to honor, build on, and/or align with existing work and pursue system and program strategies that are most relevant to local needs.

These principles of practice were identified based on the work of the field of practitioners by the Collective Impact Forum in partnership with the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions, FSG, the Forum for Youth Investment, Grantmakers for Effective Organizations, Living Cities, PolicyLink, the Tamarack Institute, and United Way Worldwide.

Five Conditions of Collective Impact

While our understanding of how to put collective impact into practice has deepened and expanded, the five conditions outlined in the original article Collective Impact remain the core of the approach.

  • Common Agenda: All participants have a shared vision for change that includes a common understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving the problem through agreed-upon actions.
  • Shared Measurement: Agreement on the ways success will be measured and reported, with a short list of common indicators identified and used across all participating organizations for learning and improvement.
  • Mutually Reinforcing Activities: Engagement of a diverse set of stakeholders, typically across sectors, coordinating a set of differentiated activities through a mutually reinforcing plan of action.
  • Continuous Communication: Frequent and structured open communication across the many players to build trust, assure mutual objectives, and create common motivation.
  • Backbone Support: Ongoing support by independent, funded staff dedicated to the initiative, including guiding the initiative’s vision and strategy, supporting aligned activities, establishing shared measurement practices, building public will, advancing policy, and mobilizing funding. Backbone staff can all sit within a single organization, or they can have different roles housed in multiple organizations.

Share yout thoughts

We would look forward to hearing what you think about these principles, and what practices have been core to your collective impact work.

Download the Collective Impact Principles of Practice

A copy of this post is also available in the Forum's Resource Library.

From Self to Systems Readings - Week 4 - Racial Equity

Posted 4 years ago at 4:05 pm

As we prepare for the April workshop From Self to Systems: Leadership for Collective Impact, we’ll be sharing materials and readings that will focus on the various aspects related to leading within collective impact.

Now in our fourth and last week of pre-reads, we’re sharing a few resources, curated by workshop faculty, that can help boost your capacity as well as provide a way to discuss these topics with workshop attendees and CI Forum members.

Racial Equity Pre-Reads

Viewing collective impact work with an equity lens, especially racial equity, is a crucial and necessary step towards achieving population-level change through collective impact. Building in a “bias” towards equity can help deepen engagement, strengthen relationships, ease communications, and increase the effectiveness of your data-gathering and evaluations. Most important, having a deeper understanding of the inequity surrounding the social issue you are trying to change can help you better understand and work with the communities most affected. Below are a couple resources that can help explore how to bring an equity lens into your work.

Paying Attention to White Culture and Privilege: A Missing Link to Advancing Racial Equity - In this Foundation Review article, Gita Gulati-Parteein discusses that examining privilege and culture are necessary steps to take to work towards equity. .

Hungry for more?

White Supremacy Culture – This is a helpful list that discusses the different ways that white privilege can appear in organizations as well as shares some recommendations on how to increase inclusion.

What do you think?

What resonated with you from these resources?

At times, having honest conversations that dive deep into racial equity can be difficult on all sides. What have you found as helpful when having these discussions? What tools or techniques woud you recommend to others who are wondering how to start bringing a racial equity lens to their work?

From Self to Systems Readings - Week 1 - Mindfulness and Presencing

Posted 4 years ago at 4:05 pm

As we prepare for the April workshop From Self to Systems: Leadership for Collective Impact, we’ll be sharing materials and readings that will focus on the various aspects related to leading within collective impact.

Every Friday this month, we will share a few resources, curated by workshop faculty, that can help boost your capacity as well as provide a way to discuss these topics with workshop attendees and CI Forum members.

From Self to Systems curriculum will look at collective impact leadership through multiple lenses: Leading Self (to consider one’s own contribution to the problem and the solution), Leading Others (to catalyze broader leadership in the change process), and Leading Systems (to better understand the complex dynamics that prevent or accelerate progress). Along with examining these areas of leading Self, Others, and Systems, we will also discuss applying the necessary lens of racial equity while doing collective impact work.

Leading Self Resources – Exploring Mindfulness and Presencing

You may be familiar with the term mindfulness. Whether this is a new term or a practice that you are very familiar with, below are a few resources that discuss how mindfulness and presencing can support your understanding of yourself and how you navigate within your leadership role.

  1. This excerpt from C. Otto Scharmer’s Theory U: Leading from the Future as It Emerges provides great context on how mindfulness can fit within your work. Download PDF excerpt from the publisher
  2.  In this short blog post, Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh shares about the different ways to practice mindfulness and how it can bring calmness and clarity to your work.

Hungry for more? Find more resources exploring mindfulness below.

What do you think?

Have you practiced mindfulness, meditation, or other ways of to make yourself “present” in your work and conversations?

What have you found most useful? What has been most challenging? Do you have any recommendations to share from your own experience?