By open-sourcing solutions to a key challenge in the field of collective impact--engaging community members--we were able to create actionable and digestible resources that helped practitioners strengthen their work.

Our CEO, Ben Hecht, frequently talks about “knowledge as a social good.” This idea is baked into the core of Living Cities operations—we believe that it is our obligation to share what we are learning with our partners in the field. If we hold everything we’ve learned close to the chest, we doom others to repeat the same mistakes we’ve made. By continuously sharing out what we’ve seen from our work, we help others get dramatically better results for the people they serve, faster.

Not only that, but it also helps us better achieve our own organizational outcomes. Our colleague Nadia, who leads Living Cities’ communications and storytelling work, wrote earlier this year about our civic tech journey, highlighting how continuously sharing and refining our work led us to develop several different partnerships to help cities use data and technology in innovative ways. We wanted to share another open-sourcing case study on a completely different topic—community engagement and collective impact—to illustrate how open sourcing social change can create behavior change in the field.

Our community engagement and collective impact work spans a number of activities and initiatives, most notably our free e-course on the topic, which has over 2,700 registrants to date. We have distilled four key lessons from our experience building and delivering the e-course to help you more effectively open source your work.

Be Responsive and Targeted

Our interest in the intersection of community engagement and collective impact began because of a gap we identified in both our site and field building work. Our partners in The Integration Initiative (TII) repeatedly asked us for more support on engaging community members. Around this same time, many collective impact leaders across the country were speaking out that the model was too “top down” and needed more integrated involvement from community representatives. Because of our unique position supporting over 70 collective impact initiatives across the country, we decided to respond to these requests and figure out how collective impact initiatives could better engage with communities.

A Broad View of Collective Impact

70+ Partnerships Living Cities supports over 70 collective impact initiatives across the country, giving us a unique and broad view of the field.

We began our exploration with two targeted approaches. We leveraged a convening of TII partners to explore the topic, hosting a day-long event that brought together experts from across the country to discuss the topic and surface relevant tools and resources. We also worked with a sub-set of our members to collect examples from their work on how to best engage with communities for large-scale change initiatives.

Start Broad and Go Narrow

The TII convening and work with our members resulted in a wealth of information about collective impact. The research, perspectives and examples we collected could have filled a book. But our goal with this exploration wasn’t to be comprehensive—it was to respond to a need and offer resources that help people do their work better.

So, instead of publishing an expansive research paper on community engagement and collective impact, we decided to narrow down the scope of our work and create a resource that was actionable and digestible. We developed an e-course that featured several modules on the topics that we felt were most relevant to practitioners. Our assumption was that people did not have the time to comb through pages and pages of resources that a typical white paper might provide, and so we made sure the e-course clearly directed people to resources we felt were most relevant for the challenges they were facing.

Two young adults in a deep conversation

Two community members in conversation.

Once we determined we wanted to develop an e-course, we went back out to the people involved in our initial exploration of the topic to validate our thinking about what resources practitioners needed to do their work better. We also spoke with other leaders in the field who we thought could help us improve the e-course based on their experiences.

Continuously Learn to Increase Impact

The e-course turned out to be a huge success. We had over 1,000 people sign up within the first couple weeks. The number continues to grow, with over 2,700 people registered to-date. Even though the e-course was initially successful, we didn’t call it a day. We collected data throughout the e-course and even after it ended to make sure we were meeting participants’ needs.

This focus on data was with one goal in mind: Behavior change. If people signed up for this e-course but didn’t end up changing their behavior, we would not have achieved success. The goal of the e-course, and all Living Cities’ open sourcing social change work, is to ensure that positive behavior change is happening all over.

Our initial results from the e-course are encouraging, but behavior change at the field-level is hard to measure and track. We’re still learning how to better understand our impact on the field.

Stronger Community Engagement

50% Around 50% of participants who completed the final survey indicated they strengthened their community engagement work as a result of the e-course.

What we do know from the e-course that nearly everyone had a positive experience, with over half rating it as “very good.” On average, participants indicated that the e-course changed the way they think about community engagement and collective impact, and that the materials were applicable to their work. These are proxies for behavior change, but proxies that point in the right direction. Around 50% of participants who completed the final survey indicated they strengthened their community engagement work, but unfortunately the sample size on the final survey was so low it’s hard to draw any conclusions from that number. For more on the specific lessons from the e-course, read our all of our analysis of the data.

On the field side, we saw that community engagement and collective impact became a much bigger topic during and after the e-course. Of course, we can only point to correlation, and not causation with this result.

Resource Document: Community Engagement E-Course: Participant Surveys Analysis
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Repurpose Content to Change Behavior of Different Audiences

The e-course launched a year ago, but we are still able to use the content we create to continually influence the field. We’ve re-purposed the information in the e-course for many different audiences, such as presenting on a Tamarack Institute webinar and at a Grantmakers for Effective Organizations conference. Most recently our work on community engagement and collective impact was included in the Community Development review, opening us up to a new audience of academics and university professionals.

We continue to look for new ways to share what we’re learning and learn from new groups of people. If anything in this blog has sparked something for you—or if you have other questions about what we learned—please share them in the comments or on social media using #CEinCI!

Take the E-Course:

Resource Document: The Why and How of Working with Communities through Collective Impact: An E-Course
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