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We Need to Ask the Difficult Questions About Collaboration and Collective Impact

By Guest Writer on October 17, 2016



No single organization can solve the challenges that the international development sector addresses. Collectively, we can achieve a lot more. Collaboration is a hot topic at conferences like MERL Tech, but we often just revert back to our regular habits at work rather than operationalizing the changes we talk about. Or, collaboration occurs at a superficial level rather than fundamental change in the way we work together.

Akvo and USAID LEARN convened a MERL Tech session that investigated how collective impact, an approach developed by FSG, can facilitate effective collaboration and what role technology can play in this process.  For example, the New York State juvenile justice system made measurable and significant improvements in community safety, coordination, data-driven decision-making, and outcomes for youth ages 7 to 15 using a collective impact approach.

Divided into small groups, participants were encouraged to discuss their own experiences of collaboration, both good and bad, and to identify what enabled or inhibited this collaboration. In sharing their experiences with the group, a fundamental question emerged:

How, can true collaboration occur in a competitive environment?

The following themes emerged from the group discussion:

  • Resources: What is the cost of collaboration? What are the financial incentives for collaboration?
  • Equality and Trust: There is a natural imbalance of power among actors within the sector, and this can make equal partnerships a challenge. True collaboration will require changes in the way the sector functions. Trust needs to be built at multiple levels–from individuals to organizations–and be built around a common agenda and mutually reinforcing activities.
  • Inclusiveness: Actors at all levels must work together to address the collaboration imbalance.
  • Investment of Time: Strict timelines often inhibit the flexibility needed to develop and nurture the trust required for effective collaboration.
  • Impact: Incentives based on outputs instead of impact often keep development practitioners from working toward the lasting impact we want to see.

Collective impact can help address these issues. However, collaboration is challenging and the approach only highlights a pathway to effective collaboration. We still have to navigate the path, which requires time, money, and motivation.

One participant shared that effective change management at both the organization and sector level is needed to establish the right conditions for collaboration. Individual motivation and ability to collaborate aren’t enough – systemic change must happen too. Innovative approaches to improve the quality and quantity of collaboration are being piloted, such as USAID’s initiative to become a learning organization through their collaborating, learning and adapting framework and its use of Learning Networks.

We all need to collaborate to move these discussions and pilots forward to put the conditions in place where collaboration to improve impact is incentivized. We can then follow the collective impact pathway to create real lasting change.

Written by Henry Jewell, Ethel Mendez Castillo, Sarah Schmidt, Katherine Haugh, and Melissa Bevins. Katherine also created visual notes of the session.

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