Perhaps you’ve seen the cartoon that shows four people in a rowboat. A hole in the stern causes the small vessel to quickly fill with water as two of the passengers desperately bail. Meanwhile, the other two sit leisurely at the helm, watching the action with passive interest. “Sure glad the hole isn’t at our end,” they comment to each other, oblivious as the boat they all share slowly sinks.
This cartoon succinctly summarizes an all-too-real threat to collective impact initiatives. Each partner brings important, targeted goals to the project that focus on their own priorities and passions. Bringing them all together requires common language, aligned measures and shared accountability. Articulating these important goals helps connect individual, fragmented efforts, and ensures that the underlying cause of a problem is discovered and collectively addressed. A coordinated force makes space for a larger, more holistic, more successful outcome. Collective impact means we are all in this work together—sink or swim!
Beginning With the End in Mind
How do cross-sector groups measure and share successes, effectively advocating for what works, leaving behind what doesn’t, and ensuring each group is supported and aligned? The answer is to begin with the end in mind. Envision a shared result, use data to analyze what is working and what is not, and begin to put strategies into place that address the shortfalls and bolster the desired outcomes. To aid in this critically important analysis around our shared result, the Albuquerque Integration Initiative is in the process of transitioning to Results Based Accountability (RBA) to measure its impact. Brittany DeBarros of Living Cities (and sharer of the thought-provoking cartoon), and Karen Finn of Results Leadership Group recently introduced the RBA framework to our stakeholders. I have had the opportunity to utilize RBA as a Children and Families Fellow with the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and am pleased to bring this powerful framework to the implementation stage of our community-driven efforts to support homegrown job creation, entrepreneurship, a skilled workforce and a healthy, diversified economy.
RBA helps us use data to drive the conversation from the start. It is a guide for placing results right in the center, drawing on community-lived experience and qualitative input to interpret the story behind the data, and inform strategies and provide insights that will move us toward shared results. It gives us permission to measure what we can’t control. Both macro and micro data are used, first quantitatively to discover the baseline and identify trends, then disaggregated to look qualitatively at sectors and demographics to better understand the story—the why—behind trends. RBA helps us ask effective questions: What are the root causes of the problem? How do we turn the curve of the baseline? Is anyone better off? How so? And if they aren’t, it gives us permission to learn from the failed ideas and move on to a different strategy. Data, in RBA, is a flashlight, not a hammer. RBA provides the framework for disciplined thinking and action, helping to shed light on why trends are occurring and where to direct the most effort for optimum impact. As Brittany so eloquently stated, RBA “brings precision to your passion.”
RBA also allows us to focus on the power and importance of aligned contributions. It shows us how we can move from talk to action, harnessing the power of many resources, leaders, programs and systems. Why is this important? With so many dollars, so many plans and so many committed people, the outcomes often still don’t measure up. Despite numerous programs to help students advance at grade level, why do some schools continue to suffer with low standardized test scores and high drop out rates? How do we prepare every student for a meaningful, living wage career? Focusing on alignment allows us to articulate the conditions needed to bridge the gap between short- and long-term goals.
The Theory of Aligned Contributions contends that, “it is more likely that measurable population level change will occur when the right group of leaders use specific skills to align their actions and make contributions to a specific result” (AECF, 2014). This theory is both descriptive and predictive about how leaders move from talk to action to produce better results. It predicts the acceleration of positive outcomes when skilled and motivated leaders from multiple sectors:
- Make an unequivocal commitment to be publicly accountable for a result for a specific population, and
- Work together to take aligned action at the scope and scale needed to make measurable progress toward the desired result.
Holding this place-based training right here in Albuquerque enabled more than 80 stakeholders to attend, and allowed us to apply this learning to local projects. We inspired each other with unique stories of why we do what we do, why we love to call Albuquerque home, and how our collective vision is stronger than a single idea. The personalized training allowed us to go beyond theoretical examples to situations specific to our current initiatives. Our collective team has been strengthened, our vision sharpened, and our energy primed.
RBA provides a framework for data that helps us see the whole picture. It is a roadmap to not merely act on our own, but to join together in responsibility, ownership and results. Rather than using data to prove, we work to improve. And it allows us not just to advocate for ideas, but to advocate for partnerships and what works. The training illuminated how important collaboration is to becoming a high-performing initiative. In short, it gives us the tools we need to fill the holes (to “turn the curve”) in our boat. No—strike that. Who needs a boat? It just might give us the wings to fly!