Community engagement and co-production are both fundamental components required to create effective collective impact.

Effective Collective Impact

As more and more collective impact initiatives are launched many participants are realizing that effective collective impact will not simply occur through better coordination of services by one organization or even a multitude of organizations. It requires a “sea change" in our thinking, and the development of community led strategies focused on achieving real change in the lives and communities we serve.

Based on my experience, the framework of action for effective collective impact incorporates the following four components:

1) A clear common purpose;

2) Community engagement and co-production;

3) Relationships and trust; and

4) Results and accountability.

The elements of effective collective impact

In this blog series I will address each one of the components starting with Community Engagement and Co-Production.

Community Engagement and Co-Production

During my years with various United Ways, I launched a number of collective impact initiatives. One thing they all had in common was a focus on community engagement that employed the principles of Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD).

ABCD is a place-based framework pioneered by John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann, founders of the ABCD Institute at Northwestern University. ABCD builds on the gifts (skills, experiences, knowledge and passions) of local residents, the power of local associations, and the supportive functions of local institutions to build more sustainable communities for the future.

In my work, I found that one of the most powerful components of collective impact success, and the most misunderstood, is community engagement. We often believe that community engagement is the process of engaging the people we serve as advisors to help improve our programs and services. For example, if an individual has particular knowledge about her neighborhood and its residents, she may advise an agency about ways to most effectively serve the neighborhood and define what services the neighborhood actually wants/needs.

However, community engagement frequently stops here. Professionals often believe we have achieved community engagement when we ask people, “What do you need and how you would like it delivered?” and we change our service model based on the input received. However, I believe we have the opportunity to make an even greater difference in our communities when we work to help the people we serve move beyond the roles of clients and advisers to become co-producers of their own and their community’s well-being. My experience tells me that to truly make a difference, we need the gifts of the people we serve, as co-producers. We cannot do it without them.

In the most successful and effective collective impact initiatives, the people we serve have the opportunity to participate as clients, advisors and co-producers, as appropriate. For example, there are times when people need to be a client. If a person breaks his leg or has a disease he rightfully needs to be a client or patient, dependent on a professional. Agencies and funders also need the advice and input of the people they serve to develop better approaches to offer what people truly need.

The Roles of Residents in Collective Impact

However, we have a much better chance of achieving the results we are striving for when we create the opportunity for people to share their gifts and serve as co-producers.

In addition to asking people “What they need?” we ask “What can you contribute?” And “How can we help you share your gifts?” As co-producers, community members become part of the solution. For example, as part of an early education collective impact initiative we want to make sure that every household in a neighborhood with young children has age-appropriate books to help them learn to read. Rather than funding an agency to buy and distribute books, we could find a group of neighborhood parents who have a passion for reading and they could organize the book drive. This activity does not require institutional or government resources. This is an example of something residents can do themselves if they are engaged as part of the solution.

When we adopt this approach as part of a collective impact effort, agencies, and professionals can play a powerful role in removing barriers. By playing this role, we can ensure that all community members have an opportunity to share their skills and experiences, and do whatever they can do to improve their lives and their neighborhood or community. We need everyone’s gift to create the change we all desire for families, children and ultimately the community. For me the foundation for effective collective impact is genuine community engagement and co-production.