FORUM: How is your mentoring program collaborating in the community?

handsOne of the more interesting, and potentially impactful, trends in the social sector over the last few years has been the rise of “collective impact” efforts in hundreds of communities across the United States. While mentoring programs and others who work with youth and families to build resiliency and promote lifelong success have always collaborated to some degree, we are today seeing a greater emphasis on deeper collaboration and aligned strategies across stakeholders. Much of what used to be thought of as community organizing or coalition-building has been getting a facelift over the last decade. It’s become more purposeful, intentional, and ambitions—and it’s changing how mentoring programs need to think about their services in relation to their local context.

The term collective impact was first coined by John Kania and Mark Kramer of FSG in their seminal article in the Winter 2011 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. There they described a new type of collaboration that they were documenting in several fields (public health, economic development, environmental causes)—a model that emphasized data use and data-driven decisionmaking, that structured services and programs around a common agenda, that featured communication structures and distributed leadership that allowed a broad array of community stakeholders to commit to a shared set of indicators of progress. They called this new form of collaboration collective impact and noted five key conditions that fostered its success and differentiated it from other forms of collaboration.

Efforts like the Strive Partnership in Cincinnati were among the first to apply these types of concepts to communitywide efforts to support children from “cradle to career.” Their model brought together a very broad group of partners and supporters—K-12 and higher education institutions, community-based service providers, businesses, philanthropy, health care providers, religious groups, government agencies, and youth and families themselves—and provided them with the tools and strategies to implement radical changes in community systems in the name of finally solving long-standing problems. Thanks to their groundbreaking model, their StriveTogether Network now sponsors collective impact efforts in almost 100 communities in 37 states and the District of Columbia.

I recently co-authored a publication looking more closely at the experiences of eight diverse education- and youth development-focused collective impact efforts in the northwest, and while the report looks at the K-12 and academic focus of much of this work, it really got me thinking about how mentoring programs can best contribute to these types of initiatives. There are a couple of things I think mentoring programs need to have in place, or be prepared to act on, to  maximize opportunities in this new collaboration landscape, especially in communities that adopt a collective impact approach:

  • Have a rock solid theory of change that speaks to the outcomes of the collective impact initiative—Collective impact efforts will all have a clear set of outcomes they are trying to promote (often by a specific end date) and a set number of indicators that they are tracking to measure progress toward the goals they have set. We’ve talked about the importance of a theory of change in this space before, but if a mentoring program is going to become a key player in such an initiative, they really need to be able to show how their work will help “move the needle” on the indicators that matter. Even if your program can only contribute to one of two aspects of the overall initiative, being able to clearly articulate how can get you a seat at the table. Needless to say, funding and involvement opportunities often flow to those who provide services that can generate meaningful results.
  • Build up your data capacity—Participating in a collective impact effort often means collecting, aggregating, and reporting data about the work you are doing. Take a fresh look at your data systems and processes. What do you have the ability to report on? What do you wish you could? Do you have the staffing or systems to collect more? Can you keep data secure? Share it with others in a variety of ways? Make sure you can contribute to those measures of progress.
  • Expand your “circle of trust”—It can be really hard in the nonprofit field to be open and collaborative; often programs grasp onto a niche or focus on their immediate viability or “market share.” But communitywide collaborations like collective impact involve a lot of transparency and willingness to set organizational agendas aside. They require working with new partners, being open to shifts in priorities, and committing to shared goals beyond your own organization’s ambitions. To navigate this effectively, you will need to have good working relationships with other service providers, funders, and community organizations. So start building up those connections now. Participate in committees and working groups, set up information-sharing meetings with other stakeholders. Ensure that your mentoring program has a recognizable “face” in this work, no matter how it plays out over time.

These initiatives hold so much potential and I’m hopeful that mentoring programs are finding a seat at the table in communities going this route. I’m curious to know who among our Chronicle readership is involved in a collective impact effort in their community. To that end, I’ve created a few polls below that attempt to get at how much of a factor this is in the work of the practitioners and programs that frequent this site.

Is your mentoring program participating in a local collective impact effort?

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How would you describe your mentoring program’s involvement?

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If your program is involved in a local collective impact effort, take a minute to tell us about your involvement in the comment section below. Do you feel like your mentoring work has a role in this work? Does your program have a voice at the table? Is the effort achieving its goals—or it is more talk than action to date? Do you think this will build long-term solutions for the youth and families of the community? And what could make the effort more impactful?

We’d love to hear about how collective impact is, or is not, affecting the future of your work…


[photo courtesy of DI via Flickr]