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Research Round Up: Working Together in Strive

John Kania and Mark Kramer, “Collective Impact.” Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter, 2011. Leland Stanford Jr. University.

Few problems have been tougher to solve than improving public education. Everyone has ideas: more recess, more preschools, more testing, longer school days, longer school years, charter schools, school “turnarounds”— the list goes on. And yet more than a million high schoolers still drop out every year.

One city, Cincinnati, Ohio, is making progress not by finding one big solution but by embracing many small ones, and —here’s the key — doing it with a lot of partners working closely together.

Four years ago, Cincinnati and two nearby cities in northern Kentucky started a program they called “The Strive Partnership.” Strive embodied a collective impact strategy, with an aim to improve education at every level by bringing together a broad range of community leaders and organizations, including government agencies, nonprofits, philanthropic foundations, and local universities and community colleges. Strive hoped to support local youths “from cradle to career.” More than 300 organizations signed on.

And it’s worked, says a report in the Winter 2011 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review. Schools have seen gains in 34 of 53 “success indicators,” including numbers of children prepared for kindergarten, fourth grade reading ability and high school graduation rates. The same strategy has shown promise in addressing social and environmental problems in other communities, say the authors, John Kania and Mark Kramer, managing directors of the Boston-based consulting group FSG.

Collective impact springs from the belief that complicated problems require complicated solutions. Leaders in Cincinnati realized that improvement in one area of education would make little difference in the lives of young people without improvements all along the educational spectrum.

The Strive Partnership is obviously not the first attempt to solve a social problem by cooperation: The authors point out that many forms of joint effort have been tried, including public-private partnerships and multi-stakeholder initiatives. But most have failed, they say. What distinguishes Cincinnati’s approach is the degree of collaboration. Strive doesn’t simply encourage cooperation. It demands close and disciplined coordination at every step of the way, from defining goals to measuring results.

According to Kania and Kramer, successful collective impact has five crucial features:

  • A common agenda. Participating organizations must agree upon a single set of goals. In Cincinnati, the goals were simple, concrete and ambitious. They included: “Every child will be prepared for school,” “Every child will enroll in college or continuing education,” and “Every child will be supported in and out of school.”
  • A common system for evaluating results. Organizations may work in different ways on any one aspect of education, but they need to measure and report the same kinds of data.
  • Mutually reinforcing activities. Organizations are free to do what they’re good at, but they must align their efforts through a common plan of action. The power of collective impact comes not from the number of organizations that participate but from the degree of their coordination.
  • Continuous communication. In successful projects, leaders of participating organizations typically meet monthly or even bi-weekly. It still takes years to build sufficient trust.
  • A “backbone support organization.” A successful program must have a strong organizational infrastructure. This means a group is responsible for planning, training, data collection and overall management of the program. When collective impact fails, the authors say, it’s often because people think they can get by without the trouble or expense of organizational infrastructure.

Strive isn’t the only working example of collective impact. In 1993, governments and private organizations in southeastern Virginia came together to begin cleaning up the Elizabeth River, for example, an effort that’s still going on. In Somerville, Massachusetts, a program called Shape up Somerville is using the method to try to reduce childhood obesity.

Does Strive’s experience offer lessons for comprehensive community development? The authors probably would say yes. They prescribe collective impact for what they call “adaptive” problems, when the “answer is not known, and even if it were, no single entity has the resources or authority to bring about the necessary change.” And yet the Strive model requires programs and organizations to work in lockstep to a much greater degree than has been done in typical community development partnerships. In Cincinnati, foundations have aligned themselves — and the nonprofits they support — with Strive’s goals. When nonprofits apply to the Greater Cincinnati Foundation for grants, the first thing the foundation asks is whether they are part of a Strive network.

Nor does success make the work easier. Strive has had trouble raising money, the authors say, because funders prefer short-term solutions. They are reluctant to invest in long-term social change and the organizational capacity necessary to sustain it.

Still, Cincinnati’s success has inspired other communities. Strive has been helping nine other cities start similar “cradle-to-career” programs, including Indianapolis, Houston and Fresno.

Richard Mertens is a freelance writer in Chicago who covers public policy and social welfare research and programs.



Posted in Journal Volume 2, Number 1 -- July, 2011, Education & Early Learning

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