March 12, 2014

Can "Scaling What Works" and "Collective Impact" Join Forces?

Must we pick between scaling what works and collective impact? It seems a false choice. Indeed, the greatest impact for society may come from weaving the two together, creating platforms for facilitating local action that incorporates and builds on the best of what's been proven elsewhere.

Since Abe Grindle and I published an article on transformative scale a few weeks ago, one of the consistent follow-up questions has been: how does it link to another set of ideas with great currency today—collective impact?

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From the questions, it seems there is often perceived to be a tension between "scaling what works" and "collective impact." In some quarters, there has been a debate about which is the better path to impact—taking what works to scale by replicating it in many communities, or encouraging and supporting collective impact-type collaborations where multiple stakeholders across sectors together formulate a shared set of ultimate outcomes for a local or regional initiative.

But must we pick between scaling what works and collective impact? In my view, it's a false choice. Indeed, the greatest impact for society may come from weaving the two together, creating platforms for facilitating local action that incorporate and build on the best of what's been proven elsewhere.

As more collective impact initiatives spring up, do we really believe that every community ought to start from scratch and design its own programs? Doesn't it make sense to identify and learn from the most potent evidence-based practices in other places? Indeed, in a recent Bridgespan study of cities as public service innovators—Geek Cities: How Smarter Use of Data and Evidence Can Improve Lives—there are multiple examples of the creative blending of best practices with specific community needs. In a 2013 SSIR blog, FSG's John Kania and Mark Kramer, champions of collective impact, also note the emergence of this trend.

The question then isn't which approach is better, but rather: what does it take to stimulate and support local initiatives that catalyze the right actions and achieve results? In our recent article about emerging pathways to grow impact to a transformative scale, this sort of work falls under the category of "field building." In mentoring, for example, MENTOR and similar organizations have worked for decades to strengthen and build that field. They have developed and spread knowledge of the key principles of high-impact mentoring, shared tools and resources for the field to promote effective practices, and established training and certification programs for mentoring professionals. Today, collective impact champions such as Strive, Living Cities, FSG, and the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions are using similar scaling strategies to spread high-quality collective impact methodologies—developing knowledge, tools, and training programs. Yet, despite the great energy and impact achieved by these field-building efforts, the program-centric perspective espoused by much of the social sector often undervalues the role played by organizations engaged in field-building work.

There's an interesting shift in the for-profit world that relates to this topic. Until fairly recently, the most powerful companies based their success on products. Today, "platform" companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook are ascendant, as Marshall Van Alstyne describes in a recent, thought-provoking presentation. He notes that 12 of the 30 fastest growing companies in the world are platform companies that have built ecosystems where communities of users can easily transact, share, and co-create information and products. There is a bubbling of articles in Harvard Business Review and The Economist that sketch the notion of platforms and highlight their importance. And platforms don't exist just on-line. In fields like health care and higher education, companies like the Advisory Board Company engage thousands of leaders and build platforms for collaborative research, advice, and learning that elevate the practice and performance of large numbers of organizations.

While platforms are a hot topic in the for-profit sector, their application to addressing social sector problems remains largely unexplored. In their recent book, The Solution Revolution, William Eggers and Paul Macmillan of the Deloitte/Monitor Institute highlight platforms as one of the emerging business models enabling the spread of social sector solutions. But why don't we see more social sector platform models? Perhaps it is due to the sector's bias for programs, which leads to systematic underinvestment in what it takes to build strong fields and platforms—things like training, technical assistance, and technology. How many examples do we have of a deep investment in social sector platforms? And, of course, the lack of clear revenue models to support vibrant platforms impedes their development in the social sector—but that is a challenge to confront.

Perhaps I'm being overly optimistic about the possibilities for blending "scaling what works" with "collective impact"—but for-profit innovators and nonprofit field builders point to some important possibilities for how these might come together. What do you think? Is there an opportunity for greater collaboration between proponents of scaling what works and collective impact? Might platforms be integral to the next wave of scale?

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Archived Comments

Daniel Bassill
3/12/2014 5:03:48 PM

Good article. For those who are building platforms that could be used by millions, our challenge is bringing more people to articles like this, then to libraries that they can learn from.

I've been building a knowledge platform since before the internet, and took it on line in 1998. This page includes a graphic that illustrates it's goals. If you search Google for 'tutor mentor' my web sites are on the first page. I've recorded over a million visitors since 1993. Yet, i'm still struggling to keep the service available and relevant.

You identified one of the challenges. Donors want to focus on programs, not infrastructure. Another is that donors don't fund consistently from year to year, for many reasons. A knowledge base need constant maintenance and also an ability to broadcast it's availability to potential users.

Another problem is "not invented here", "ego" and "silos". Instead of supporting work already being done many want to reinvent the wheel with their own name on the door.

An even greater problem for those like myself who have been doing this work for nearly 20 years is timing. While the internet is dramatically increasing the ability for us to connect and share ideas, it's still in its first 20 years of growth. It's still used by too few who make decisions and control wealth as a place for meeting and working collectively to solve problems. In another 20 years this will be less of a problem, but those of us who are pioneers may not be around to see the blossoming of our efforts.

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