Using Collective Impact to Supercharge Change - The Story of Opportunity Child

Words By: Moira Deslandes.

In Australia, we are not without some wicked social and environmental problems to solve.

And many of these problems, especially early childhood development, require a change of current systems, and a powerful movement behind them to get the traction needed to create large-scale impact.

Thankfully though here in Australia our strong democracy, civil sector, social systems and infrastructure to support social innovation have provided a unique, fertile ground for a new social innovation tactic that does just that, and it’s called collective impact.

Here is what we at Opportunity Child have learnt pioneering collective impact, and how you too can use this powerful tool to supercharge the work of your social enterprise or nonprofit.  

 But first, what is collective impact?

Collective impact is a term coined by John Kania, Managing Director at FSG, and Mark Kramer, Kennedy School at Harvard and Co-founder FSG. It emerges through the lined-up action of individuals, community groups, organisations, philanthropy and business.  

Early on, these groups build a shared agenda to solving a specific social problem through a structured form of collaboration, driven by data and lived experience. The key word in that sentence is result. It is not enough to collaborate and as an international leader in the field, Dr Michael McAfee says: collaboration is not a result.

Just working together and doing good isn’t enough, getting traction to turn around a stubborn or wicked social problem requires systems change and that is at the heart of collective impact initiatives.

However it is important to note that not every problem needs a collective impact solution,  as Mark Cabaj co-founder of Canada’s leading Tamarack Institute, says “collective impact when necessary, not necessarily collective impact.”

Collective impact involves work at scale and there are many small scale situations which can be addressed with creativity and wisdom that don’t require a systems shift where social challenges can be turned around with some tweaks and reconfigurations.  

But for those intractable problems where what we have been doing isn’t getting any traction or making any differences, collective impact is worth considering.

There are five essential ingredients to collective impact:

  1. A common agenda

  2. Shared measurement

  3. Mutually reinforcing activities

  4. Continuous communication

  5. A backbone organisation.

Permeating each of these elements is the fundamental commitment to holding community at the centre.  Leadership manages and holds the initiative together and can look quite different. Leadership can include one, or a combination of individual champions, consulting firms, schools, early childhood services, local and State governments, peak bodies, community groups and coalitions that include philanthropy, non-government organisations and resident groups – and a mix of all of the above!

Over the last five years, the worldwide movement to embrace collective impact has started to shape change and mature, becoming more customised to local conditions in regions and countries.  

Opportunity Child and Early Childhood Development

Did you know that one in five Australian children are not ready to start school in meeting the most basic of their developmental needs? Sadly, there are many communities around our country, where that ratio is even higher and extra challenges have compounded the problem.

Opportunity Child is pioneering collective impact in the early childhood development space here in Australia to address these issues. We work to support organisations and community efforts who are addressing this issue, to increase the number of children who are thriving in our communities while also changing the system for all communities to work collectively on early childhood development.

Opportunity Child is a ‘backbone’ or engine room for the early years, and it is in its own early years. It was launched in April 2014 under the auspices of the Melbourne-based catalytic philanthropic foundation ten20.

What we have learnt, is that starting with the early years is the best place to begin addressing long-term change for children, society and the economy.  It really is common sense to have help early rather than a metaphorical ambulance at the bottom of the cliff. The science is in from the neuroscientists about early brain development and the economics is in from Nobel prize winner James Heckman.

"The highest rate of return in early childhood development comes from investing as early as possible from birth through age five, in disadvantaged families. Starting at age three or four is too little, too late as it fails to recognise that skills beget skills in a complementary and dynamic way. Efforts should focus on the first years for the greater effectiveness." James J Heckman, Economics Nobel Laureate, 2012

Problems need solutions commensurate with their size – and failure to get more of our children across the line is big and therefore needs a big fix.  It is not just a question of dollars. There is a need for realignment in the system for both public and private sources and like all useful innovative efforts, it is a question of trialling, testing, learning cycling through and advancing initiatives to the next level.

In this kind of work, that means finding ways to keep momentum and moving quickly – after all the two-year-old of today is going to be five in three years time and that is only an election away.  We don’t have time to waste, everyday children get a day older and we only have a short period of time to make a big impact in their lives to set them up for the future.

Some of our learnings on collective impact  

We all know it “takes a village to raise a child” and a nation to raise a generation – this work is too important and too big to be left to individual families, governments or organisations – we need to do it together.  

Currently, Opportunity Child is supporting six high potential communities.

These communities are all working in their own unique ways and with their own unique set of circumstances to turn around the results for children, so more of them are ready for school and kicking their developmental goals.  

The communities are learning together, striving together, exploring and stumbling as they prototype, innovate and co-design what is going to work best for their children in their community. In turn, these lessons are being shared with the view to scale-up and amplify to impact whole populations.

The same principles are at work with government agencies, non-government groups, academic and philanthropy to bring all the levers together so systems shifts can happen.

One of the initiatives being supported by Opportunity Child is Logan Together. They are working to address the gap in their city for 4,000 of the children who are not reaching their developmental goals. Hearing directly from the community to kickstart their initiative included considerable community engagement and as 2016 came to an end, Logan Together were celebrating the first year of operations and claim the strength of partnership with industry, community and government as their main achievement, laying the foundations for impact this year. 

"Our most important role is to build partnerships across sectors that build capacity, confidence and trust, and we've already begun to see the fruits of these conditions demonstrated through genuine co-design processes leading to game-changing solutions from the people closest to the problems."  Matthew Cox, Logan Together

Innovations to date have included working with data sets previously unattainable to begin deeply exploring some of the facts behind disadvantage, getting clarity about measuring results and telling the story. The design to test what is working and if anyone is better off is at the heart of any collective impact initiative. Logan Together has developed the systems to get that testing in place and will be monitoring and measuring efforts across the whole system with the early years' ecosystem. The lessons and learnings will be shared and this will bring value to future scaling up.  

Leaders in this work are facilitators, brokers and disruptors. The kind of leadership required is not your traditional program manager or director. This work needs leaders who are adaptive, can spot levers for change early, activate and mobilise the levers (and who holds them), and who are energised by complexity, hungry to collaborate with their eyes on the result for children at all times.

Community members like Debbie Dunn in Together in the South are providing leadership and offering advice to the whole initiative about how this work takes time and what is needed for success:

"I think it is really really important that people have the time to develop the relationships and the processes that are needed to actually coordinate and collaborate with each other; and that requires people moving the work from being a side-of-the-desk thing to being a central focus of what they are doing, and seeing that the work of the collective is their work, that they are not two different things. Because they are part of a system and I think that people don’t really see that sometimes...That their work actually does fit within the whole system and therefore is, you know, a part of all that we are doing. I think they need to look over the fence and see what their neighbours are doing so that they can see the connections, and that they actively seek those out, and build the relationships, the processes and the structures that are needed to support growing that. And the more that we can do that, the more impact we are going to have."  Debbie Dunn, Community Convenor, Together in the South

Trust is the main currency in collective impact and we work from the principle that change happens at the speed of trust. Spending time to build relationships between people and systems takes time and needs to be respected and reflected on is the key to moving powerfully forward together.

Opportunity Child works as a ‘backbone’ to all their community backbones. This is done through providing access to expertise, resources, information, contributing to the national levers that need shifting to get the changes in the system for children, building data, research, evaluating, international advice, and most importantly providing a community of peers to lead, learn and share their collective impact experiences.  

Opportunity Child is all about curiosity and courage and one of the communities (Sanderson Alliance) have taken their values about being ‘kind and brave’ to the next level by embedding them in their approach to a 100-day challenge and a recent children’s art show bringing the voice of children directly to decision-makers.

By scaling up the learning, Opportunity Child is demonstrating how systems change comes from and goes back to communities.  

Like all new beginnings and new young lives, the first steps are hesitant and lacking in elegance, but not lacking in enthusiasm and curiosity. This is also true for the communities and for Opportunity Child, it is a case of: from little things big things grow.

“Opportunity Child has community at its heart, working alongside the inspirational explorers connecting to improve outcomes for children through Collective Impact.   Our work links national and local needs and understandings and we are making every effort to build a movement from the ground up, enabling Collective Impact leaders to power up local voices and mobilise communities. We are committed to matching this groundswell by ensuring a depth of knowledge and understanding, as well as  a cultural shift, across all stakeholders and leaders nationally.” - Executive Director, Michelle Lucas

If you want to learn more or get involved in a collective impact initiative or join in the movement you can find out more at www.opportunitychild.com.au. There will be a call for interns later in the year and we’d love to hear from anyone interested in sharing and learning together as we begin to move from crawling and walking, to running! Or you can get into contact with us at support@opportunitychild.com.au

Moira is an Associate of Opportunity Child. She has worked from the kitchen table to the cabinet table. She trained as a social worker and has had leadership roles, including Chief of Staff to Minister in SA Government, CEO of Volunteering SA & NT, Global Executive Director of International Association for Public Participation (IAP2). Moira is a director of Scope Global. She is a member of the International Association of Facilitators and works brings a futures lens to all assignments. She works with systems, communities, networks and leaders to get results. She lives with gratitude on Kaurna country in Willunga.