“Engaging in collective impact is not for the faint hearted,” Seri Renkin says knowingly. “But if we really want to make progress on complex social issues in our communities, we have no choice but to look at new ways of working with the resources we have.”
“So much of the approach is common sense and yet our traditional systems, structures and processes drive a lot of behaviours that impact our ability to align our efforts more effectively. The complexity in collective impact is the tension between building shared rigour and accountability that shows progress, but also allows time for learning and adaptation,” she explains.
“It’s about seeing the importance of the end game and getting beyond all the needs of one’s own organisation, personal ambition and interest, giving up some things, in order to make social progress — for funders this can run counter to the way we work.”
Renkin says it requires a real shift in the way grantmaking is done. “It’s more than collaborative effort—it’s strategically aligning multiple contributions to a shared agenda and outcomes, moving us away from isolated efforts and individual reporting.”
“As funders, we have to ask ourselves ‘What’s the role we want to play in this approach?’ The good news is there are many roles we can play. Philanthropy is a critical enabler. But there is no doubt catalytic philanthropy should take a leadership role.
The broad appeal of the term ‘collective impact’ (CI) and the willingness to embrace it has presented other challenges.
“Many people are talking about collective impact as if that’s the destination,” Renkin says. “But as philanthropists we need to first think about what issues are preventing our communities from thriving, then consider CI as a systemic approach to address these. It is not always the right option and given the conditions required, not always possible.”
Renkin believes the CI framework has evolved since the five original core elements were articulated in the seminal SSIR article by Kania and Kramer in 2011. Community, civic engagement, leadership and trust she says, are at the heart of the practice.
“The other evolution of the CI framework is the role and structure of the backbone,” Renkin continues.
“It’s important for funders to understand that this coordinating role and its various functions might start as a group of individuals, be an organisation, or is often a network of organisations pooling resources. One of the challenges is to work out which structure in the community holds the funding for the backbone because sometimes it’s not always a formal entity and therefore doesn’t always have DGR status.”
Leading by example
Renkin is the first to admit that she’s fortunate to be in a position of CI immersion, thanks to the mission of the ten20 foundation. The foundation is Australia’s only catalytic philanthropic entity with its whole corpus dedicated to collective impact efforts.
“We’re in a unique position,” Renkin says. “We’re able to function as a learning ground for the rest of the sector. We’re asking questions and setting up demonstrations to test how this might work.”
“That’s not to say it’s easy—it’s hard and we’ve made lots of mistakes!
“We’ve got a lot of learnings we can share, kind of notes to funders [see below] around really important structural, strategic and operational challenges to address.”
The ten20 foundation evolved from the child protection organisation, GordonCare, which began helping disadvantaged young Australians in the late 1800s.
“We can see what’s possible,” Renkin says. “Our organisation has a 125-year history and has been through many evolutions. We’ve always reinvented ourselves to address the issues of the time by asking ‘How do we best tackle the issues facing vulnerable kids and families to create better futures?’”
When the GordonCare board posed the question two and a half years ago, it realised current approaches weren’t working: one in four Australian children were considered vulnerable. Determined to tackle the problem at its root cause, the board stopped service delivery, liquidated $10 million of assets and established the ten20 foundation with 10 years’ worth of capital to contribute to reducing early childhood vulnerability.
The foundation is funding four communities across Australia: Glenorchy City (Tas), Mt Druitt (NSW), Logan (Qld) and Go Goldfields (Vic).
Though Renkin stresses that ten20’s achievements are “progress steps as opposed to massive leaps forward”, the early runs on the board are significant.
Foremost among them is ten20’s success in catalysing and providing over $1.5 million of early stage seed funding with the Woodside Development Fund to Opportunity Child, a national community-focused demonstration providing capacity building, learning support and system influence to local efforts undertaking a collective impact approach, to reduce early childhood vulnerability.
“Though this is in its infancy, it’s a unique demonstration of how business and philanthropy are aligning their resources with government and NGOs to work very differently together with a select group of communities, around a shared bold goal to reduce early childhood vulnerability from 22 – 15 per cent over the next 10 years,” Renkin says.
Other achievements Renkin points to as early markers of success include the development of a collective impact due diligence framework and roadmap, and a developmental evaluation of ten20 in partnership with the Melbourne Business School.
The road ahead
Though there’s been substantial interest in collective impact approaches in Australia, Renkin agrees with the consensus in CI circles that the local field of practice lags behind North America.
“We don’t have the same appetite for seed capital,” Renkin says. “Social innovation investment is lacking here. Nor so we have the scale of experiences yet. Obama’s social innovation fund and some of the larger philanthropic entities in the USA have really enabled this work to develop.”
“In catalytic philanthropy, different skills are required to convene multiple sectors, and work with these stakeholders to define the way forward,” Renkin continues. “It’s capitalising on the role philanthropy can play as an independent connector in the broader system.”
“We also need to better understand how this type of approach engages with traditional philanthropy, corporate philanthropy and government in order to enable social innovation funding to local demonstrations that have real potential. Philanthropy in Australia can bring new efficiency by aligning significant resources to these efforts.”
“I think it’s useful for funders to see that there are good examples in the emergent practice of CI and there are some standout leaders in Australian communities who have been driving this work. We need to continue to support these leaders and communities in their efforts. We’ve been grateful for what they have taught us so far and all have influenced our thinking and philanthropic model.” (See Renkin’s list at the end of this article).
Five questions for funders
“We need pioneering and courageous leadership from funders to progress the development of the work,” Renkin says.
“Funders who want to contribute to systems change and support collective impact approaches need to ask themselves the difficult questions:
- What role do we want to play in a collective impact approach and why?
- How might that work in our organisation?
- What capabilities, processes and governance structures do we need to support this work?
- Where are there other funders who share a common goal for change around a particular complex social issue and how might we start to align our resources in new ways with business and government?
- How will we measure our individual strategic contribution and impact to a collective initiative?
“CI is not a silver bullet and you can’t underestimate how hard this work actually is,” Renkin says.
“You’re dealing with communities that are living ecosystems that keep changing and looking at intractable social issues where existing systems are not working. Collective impact is an opportunity to do things differently—but it’s not a one-size-fits all and it’s not for all funders.
“But those doing the hard work on the ground and funders interested in creating a better future for all Australians would say collective impact is our best chance.”
Notes to funders: ten20’s most valuable lessons learned:
1. The importance of placing the community’s agenda and the voice of the lived experience at the centre of every decision to avoid slipping into old ways of working “at community” not “with community”.
2. Funders can play a range of different roles in supporting a community-led collective impact approach. These include actually catalysing and being part of the backbone, funding a backbone or local leadership capacity, strategic convening and catalysing required to attract the right stakeholders to the table to solve a particular complex social issue, as well as the need for investment in building the collective impact field of practice. It’s absolutely critical to understand that this is about funding capability not more programs.
3. Aligning and contributing to a collective effort poses significant challenges for transitional philanthropic boards and trustees.
4. Building relationships and aligning the efforts of diverse cross-sector stakeholder groups as well as balancing and pacing the technical versus adaptive approaches required to undertake collective impact is hard work.
On the ground: Collective impact at work in Australia
– Opportunity Child
– Go Goldfields Vic
– Doveton, Vic
– Tomorrow Today Foundation Benalla, Vic
– Lighthouse Initiative, Shepparton, Vic
– Children’s Ground, Jabiru NT
– Mt Druitt, NSW
– Logan, Qld
– Glenorchy City, Tas.
Seri Renkin is CEO of ten20 Foundation. ten20 is building an Opportunity Child Capital Fund and welcomes the participation of other philanthropists who are interested in working collectively. Contact Seri at ten20 here to learn more.
Illustrations courtesy ten20 Foundation.
Philanthropy Australia is proud to support this Collective Impact edition.