Nobody Said It Was Going To Be Easy

difficultpathCollective impact is often held up as the method to use to solve wicked problems — complex, entrenched, systems-level issues on which we haven’t been able to move the needle with other techniques.

Last summer, MCF’s Giving Forum publication (which I edit) focused on using collaboration and collective impact to accomplish more together than we could working alone, so I was glad to attend last week’s Learning Forum on Collective Impact. The program, sponsored by The Patrick and Aimee Butler Family Foundation and co-hosted by MCF and the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, offered another look at collective impact to see how it is working.

The morning’s speakers and panelists included:

Despite different approaches to the model, there was agreement.

Determine that collective impact is required.

If the problem can be broken down into smaller, more easily solvable issues, that will be an inherently easier way to tackle it. By their very nature, these problems are complex, over-arching and ever-changing. They have many interacting, unpredictable parts, and an improvement in one area may inadvertently spawn wicked problems elsewhere.

It’s not easy.

If you decide that collective impact is the way to go, realize that you’re in for the long haul. It’s not easy and it’s not fast. According to the speakers, it’s not unusual for agreement on a common agenda (an initial step) to take many months of work.

It’s frustrating – there are new people at the table every time you meet. Forsberg said, “You have to have patience with having conversations you feel like you’ve had at least a dozen times before.”

Ensure the community’s voice is heard.

Getting it right – from the start – is important, and including disenfranchised groups’ voices is essential to doing so. If this all-important step is overlooked, eventual solutions will feel imposed and aren’t likely to succeed.

To keep teams on track and accountable, measures should be made public. A well-publicized web site is one way to do this. Cincinnati-based Strive was mentioned as a model.

Have a clearly defined issue and targeted goals.

This was repeated by all speakers, but they also each acknowledged that it’s tricky in practice. The problems are large and entangled. They don’t have a logical beginning or end, so it’s important to get agreement among all players about where the group’s work will start and stop.

According to Borton, this is critical. With MN Girls Are Not for Sale, the foundation has committed to a $5 million effort over five years, and they have been clear about their entry and their exit. She said this can run contrary to what is sometimes typical in the field, “We tend to say, let’s work for world peace and fund it with $1 million.”

Acknowledge a different skill set is required. 

The skills that are necessary to lead these efforts are different, they must be learned and they can run contrary to getting things done efficiently. Constant communication is required.

Forsberg said, “There must be a high level of trust and we have to keep talking to each other. In our case it’s actually getting more complicated as we move forward because we keep adding partners.”

Peterson added, “Some of the necessary skills aren’t rocket science, but some of the skills are rocket science.”

Suggestions for learning included: TamarackArt of Hosting as taught by Bush Foundation and tools from other fields of study including dialogue mapping.

It’s here to stay.

So, while I don’t think anyone in the room would’ve said collective impact is easy, I think most would agree that using it as a model to solve wicked problems is here to stay.

Bielefeld said, “It’s exciting to see these real efforts playing out and scary to see the challenges. But it’s a very serious attempt to do things differently.”

Are you involved in a serious effort to do something differently? How’s it working? What are your challenges?

– Susan Stehling, MCF communications associate

Photo cc Doug Bradley Photography

2 Responses to Nobody Said It Was Going To Be Easy

  1. […] few weeks ago, my colleague Susan Stehling detailed some key principles Minnesota grantmakers have learned about the collective impact model of problem […]

  2. Swemorph says:

    Re: “Wicked Problems”, we thought that you might like to know about this:

    “Wicked Problems – Social Messes: Decision support Modelling with Morphological Analysis”. Springer, 2011.

    You can see a description at Springer here:


    Tom Ritchey

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