This post about collective impact is part of the International Literacy Association’s Leaders for Literacy day (#AgeOfLiteracy), which is bringing together voices across sectors to discuss what is required to accelerate the reduction of illiteracy around the world.
Almost eight years ago, I was invited by the Brookings Institution to attend the Global Urban Summit. I was about to start a new job as president and CEO of Living Cities, a philanthropic collaborative of 22 foundations and financial institutions dedicated to bringing about transformational change for low-income urban Americans. At the time, I had been working in the social change field for more than 20 years, in several different capacities and sectors: higher education, nonprofit, and philanthropic.
I had seen many great individual programs and worked with amazing, charismatic leaders, public and private. What I hadn’t seen, however, was needle-moving impact: millions of lives changed, not just thousands. Innovative programs, no matter how effective, can never overcome dysfunctional systems.
Education in the United States is one such system that requires a systemic, collective impact approach to change that goes beyond afterschool programs and tutor corps. The statistics are staggering: 21% of adults read below a fifth grade level and 19% of high school graduates can’t read. It is clear that we need to come together to attack and fundamentally change the systems in order to get desired and sustained results. We need governments, businesses, schools and community leaders to work together to advance an educational system that will improve outcomes for all students, especially in essential skills like literacy.
Post High School Illiteracy
19% The percentage of high school students who graduate without being able to read.
When I arrived at the Brookings convening, there was one leader whose vision and project on the ground felt just like this transformative approach to systems change I had been seeking. That leader was University of Cincinnati president Nancy Zimpher, and her initiative was the StrivePartnership. At the time, outcomes in Cincinnati were dire and a new approach was badly needed: kindergarten readiness was below 50% and nearly half of high school students were dropping out before graduation. When Nancy told me about a new cross-sector collaborative effort in the area to bring together a diverse group of community leaders to improving education as a system, and not just fix an underperforming program, I knew this had a real chance to be something important.
When Living Cities staff traveled to Cincinnati and experienced the StrivePartnership leadership table firsthand, we had even more enthusiasm about supporting the effort. What set this effort apart was the way that the table has been set with leaders who were willing to use their actual and implied authority as well as their political capital to get the work done. The participants has also agreed on the specific outcomes they wanted to change, and they had committed to using data to measure their progress, to hold themselves accountable.
The StrivePartnership inspired the increasingly utilized theory of collective impact in the education space and other areas of social change work – every day I encounter more leaders who understand the power and efficacy of these collaboratives and want to be a part of them. I believe we are in the midst of a pivotal moment in which collaboration is becoming the new competition.
This post was adapted from Ben’s foreword in Jeff Edmondson and Nancy L. Zimpher’s book Striving Together, which chronicles the author’s early lessons in achieving collective impact in education. Jeff Edmondson is the Managing Director of StriveTogether and Nancy L. Zimpher is the Chancellor of the State University of New York.