July 2021 Newsletter: How can a collective approach improve services and change systems and communities for the better?
At Root Cause, we work in communities to build collective action initiatives from the ground up, and we also offer our expertise to strengthen existing initiatives. Through our work in Guilford County, North Carolina; Cambridge and Somerville, Massachusetts; and Greater Boston, we have seen the power of bringing together public, private, and nonprofit partners to improve infant mortality, STEM equity, and educational pipelines. We have served as the backbone organization to coordinate partners and we have also built the capacity of other backbone organizations. Our collective action approach pulls together our team’s expertise and the best thinking in the sector about how to bring people together to work toward a common purpose.
For this newsletter, we’ve asked our Principals to share learnings and insights from their collective action projects by answering the following question: What is Collective Action and how can a collective approach improve services and change systems and communities for the better?
Read their answers below.
Collective Action (CA) is a valuable approach for the simple reason that people working together can achieve more than they can on their own. This is equally true for organizations, institutions, systems, and communities of every kind. Intentional collaboration towards a common purpose, or set of purposes, creates synergies. While the design of a collective action network is critical to its ability to function well, the synergies that develop are often organic and unanticipated. One of the things that interests me in particular about this work is that there is no standard prescription for a CA Initiative’s design. Every CA project needs to be designed according to its context, which is shaped by multiple variables.
CA is built on the premise that people, organizations, institutions, and communities working together are far more likely to make meaningful change than they are working independently without intentional coordination and collaboration. No one entity or stakeholder can drive systems change on its own, whether at a geographical level, systems level, or particular community level. CA is built on acknowledgement that driving systems-level change is a long- term game, non-linear, and sometimes hard to measure in the short term. Additionally, collaborative work is messy and requires tenacity from all the stakeholders involved. I think a purposeful CA framework helps us put these truths front and center, and so helps set realistic expectations about the level of time, investment, dedication, and adaptability required to truly drive systems change.
As the third-party facilitator of Boston WINs (Workforce Investment Network), we spent the first year in conversations to design a collective action model between the funder, Boston Public Schools, and five vetted nonprofits to more tightly coordinate to ensure students graduated from Boston Public Schools college and career ready. This model included the structure and processes related to how the five partners would regularly coordinate and communicate, governance, and performance measurement (including agreement on the key metrics, setting targets, setting up a shared database, and regular reporting). Being transparent with data and seeing whether established targets were being met allowed us to better coordinate among partners. Partners were asked to step up to do more of some programming and also asked to step back to do less of other programming to reduce redundancies in service provision. The partners have regularly expressed the value they see in their increased coordination in working with seniors to achieve key milestones.
Nonprofits are asked to, and choose to, participate in multiple networks and collaboratives, even with their limited time. Collective Action is focused on intentional, and accountable, collaboration. This means moving beyond having conversations about the needs and challenges within a community or a specific demographic to strategically plan how to work together in a more intentional, efficient way and to use data to understand the baseline, set targets, and regularly track and report on progress being made. The use of data is very powerful to center conversations, prioritize focus of work/services, celebrate successes, and maintain momentum.
As part of our Collective Action strategic planning with Every Baby Guilford, we integrated some aspects of the equityXdesign framework in order to create a radically inclusive planning process. This means the scale of participation is bigger and so the approach has been different from other projects, but the premise is the same. As we move from planning to implementation, it will be important for us to creatively design the interconnection of the backbone organization, the advisory groups, and the action teams to ensure continuous communication, relationship building, and learning and improvement along the way.
In our implementation work with Every Baby Guilford, the intentional use of data is the critical and messy work ahead. We continuously wrestle with what is needed to show progress in the short-term and still have a shared understanding with community members, funders, and partners that systems change that is effective and sustainable will take time.