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ASU Lodestar Center Blog

Research Friday: The Real Impact of Collective Impact

Welcome to Research Friday! As part of a continuing weekly series, each Friday we invite a nonprofit expert to highlight a research report or study and discuss how it can inform and improve day-to-day nonprofit practice. This week, Brian Spicker of Valley of the Sun United Way sat down the with Center's Stephanie La Loggia for a short interview about the meaning of "collective impact." Below is part of the interview.

In Kania and Kramer’s article, they discuss the key elements to successful collective impact. Can you talk a little about those key elements?

Brian Spicker: What's wonderful about that article is it’s something I think all of us in the social sector have been working on, they just happened to present it elegantly. But those five elements are: a common agenda. So everyone understands the language, what it is what we’re intending to do, and it’s tied then to metrics, that it’s a shared metric system. So, that’s the second element. The third element, which is really critical, is mutually reinforcing activities. So you have a variety of nonprofits, government, and philanthropic organizations working together — they are doing their own things, but it’s mutually reinforcing that common agenda, it is tying those things together. And showing that it's moving the needle, the metric, forward. 

The third area is constant communication. You’ve got to have some social marketing because you have to have some social construct on how we think about these problems, as well as have communication across all the multi-sector groups that are engaged in this. And then the last area is a backbone organization, and that means there is an organization that is focused on moving all those elements forward, year after year. Because, you know, it isn’t a one-year thing. 

Now you have had the opportunity to participate in some collective action initiatives. I was wondering if you could talk about one of the more successful initiatives you’ve been a part of and why it was successful.

I think in this work that we do what’s exciting is that we meet people who really care. There is so much desire to improve the community in so many ways. So what I’ve seen happen has been around Valley of the Sun United Way’s "ending homeless” objective, and we've focused around chronically homeless. Now that is a population that society has said, well, it’s a pretty much a choice, it's drugs, alcohol, it’s mental health — too hard, can’t solve it.

So we’ve changed the mind of the community, as well as brought all the large organizations that are engaged: government, jurisdictional leadership, funders, federal government, nonprofits, philanthropy, small business, big business, all together focusing on the chronically homeless. And we’ve made great strides moving chronically homeless individuals out of the streets, or out of the shelters, where they use up most of the resources, over 50 percent of the resources, so that individuals then who are homeless get in and out of the shelters quickly.

So, by focusing collectively around the chronically homeless we’ve made some wonderful strides. And it’s complex, it’s hard, but it really moves the needle faster than we ever imagined. When we started the conversation, it was around building a thousand units of permanent supportive housing for the chronically homeless. That was about two years ago, and today we have about 300 units in the pipeline that will be available by 2013.

You mention that part of the process is that organizations and people have to set aside their individual agendas and come together toward a common goal. Most of us know the pitfalls to this kind of collaboration. So, what are some of the tips you have for organizations to really make that work?

I think it’s a process of acknowledgment that we stand on the shoulders of others — that we couldn’t be moving towards collective impact if all of the work that occurred before us had not happened. And then really listening, listening, listening, and having the community come up with some of the strategies that really move collective impact forward. I think the other piece is then having best practices, proven methods, and science inform what those strategies would be. Here in Arizona, I think one of the best indicators of our ability to do this was the Central Arizona Project, which was truly a collective impact approach to solving long-term issues around water.

And it affected people across sectors, you had rural, you had urban, you property rights, you had farmers… and it really is an example of how we solved what could or would have been a significant problem, by taking a collective impact approach. So this isn’t necessarily new, these concepts we have to remind ourselves over and over that we can tackle some of the toughest issues facing our community, and I think the Central Arizona Project is a great example.

As you know, we are doing this because we have a conference coming up, a collective impact conference. What is your hope for this conference? What do you hope organizations and individuals walk away with, from this conference, for the future of collective impact in our area?

I think what’s exciting about what ASU Lodestar Center does is it provides information and then opportunity to engage. What I would be looking for is that it creates a spark, in a variety of our nonprofit friends and leaders, that it provides a spark for those philanthropic and government leaders to explore in a different way how they can create impact using these models. And that it begins further dialogue; that people start thinking about whether or not it makes good sense to have isolated, silo-ed programmatic delivery that isn’t tied to a larger scale change.

If you're interested in learning more about collective impact, be sure to join the ASU Lodestar Center on October 13-14. Click here for more information.

Want to see an extended version of this interview? Click here.

Brian oversees the investment of dollars into the community and the development of initiatives work at Valley of the Sun United Way. He has served in the Health and Human Services sector for more than 30 years. Prior to joining United Way in April of 2002, Brian led Body Positive, Inc., an HIV Research and Resource Center for six years. Brian also served as the Director of Development for an abuse prevention organization raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for violence prevention and support. Brian has a Bachelor’s degree in Business Management.


^ [1] Collective Impact. John Kania and Mark Kramer. Stanford Social Innovation Review.


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