The Coalition as a Collective Impact Network

Our Context

As the Coalition of Manitoba Cultural Communities for Families (CMCCF), our focus and way in which we see ourselves is very much about having a ‘collective impact’, by collaborating and cooperating with other non-profit, governmental and private sector organizations. We believe that no single organization alone can solve the most challenging problems in our cultural communities in Manitoba. We believe that this idea of ensuring a ‘collective impact’ in our communities occurs when people, informal and formal leaders from different parts of the community and their allies commit to a common agenda for solving a range of specific social and cultural community challenges.

We are aware that high-impact coalitions as networks remain an under-recognized organizational form that addresses systemic change. This type of coalition requires leadership resources, and skills beyond those of a single organization or even a single sector. These coalitions succeed when participants view the collective goal of the coalition as a moral imperative when they build relationships quickly, and balance competing claims on their resources. This occurs when they can choose how they want to contribute without having to endorse what others are doing. Ultimately, they often communicate with each other to ensure that they are not working at cross purposes. They use their imagination to examine the coalition’s vision and purpose to recognize potential innovations embedded in their relationships.

CMCCF has identified many cultural community challenges, launched several initiatives, including working groups, roundtables, and capacity building for community individuals and communities themselves and continues to facilitate strategic efforts to act together with many allies and cultural community partners. CMCCF collaborates with others in addressing long-term challenges in the community.

To affect consistent change in the community and to partner with CMCCF’s board of directors, which provides good governance to the Coalition, we have created an internal structure that we will title the ‘backbone organization’.

For our purposes, we define our backbone organizational structure as responsible for the following seven areas of responsibility:

  • To provide overall strategic direction by enabling vision and strategy. The leadership of the coalition defined this strategic direction based on our core DNA document, and our vision of ‘Healthy Cultural Communities, Healthy Families’.
  • To facilitate dialogue between allies, partners, and participants. In our aligned activities, we are not just the ‘matchmaker’ between partners. But we ensure mutually reinforcing activities between all of us. We facilitate communication between our allies and partners. We provide technical assistance, coaching, mentoring and incubating new collaborations and recruiting new partners.
  • To manage all the data collection of our activities and results, we curate the data and analyze it to ensure that we share and enhance the measurements to monitor our successes moving forward. Ultimately, we seed the value of this as a way to increase the continuous improvement of all of our shared activities. In this regard, we provide technical assistance.
  • To facilitate communications across the coalition serves multiple purposes, including guiding the vision and strategy aligning activities of partners.
  • To coordinate community outreach, which in essence is building public will. We believe that the community’s voice is essential to any collective impact initiatives. We know that outreach alone doesn’t capture the impact that backbone organizations try to achieve. Building public will means raising awareness and support for our initiatives, as well as getting community members to feel empowered to enact change and act themselves. We do this by working directly in the community on behalf of partners, by working through partners to build public will indirectly.
  • To advance policy. We use communication but we also build awareness and advocate for policies that are aligned to our common agenda that we bring forward together.
  • To mobilize funding. We shift existing funding to better align with our partner’s activities and do what’s works.

Our Unique Roles Defined by Cultural Communities

We have reached out and solicited ideas regarding CMCCF’s expertise, unique skills and experience as valued by our cultural communities.

These valuable perspectives provided us with the opportunity to focus our attention to continue to increase our capacities and even explore more opportunities to increase our growth and development in the following skill areas:

  • Build relationships of trust and respect by bringing diverse voices and communities together to engage, work, respect and understand each other;
  • Highlight specific community needs by actively listening to their voices rather than assuming what their needs are;
  • Connect and enhance empowered communities by focusing attention on their shared strengths, wisdom, community assets and core community values;
  • Centre and value “lived and felt experience” of community families and their children;
  • Amplify community voices by building awareness, advocacy and agency of what cultural communities desire in their lives;
  • Act as a two-way bridge between diverse service providers, all levels of government and their agencies, policymakers and cultural communities and their cultural and faith communities;
  • Interpret and assist to navigate service systems for and alongside cultural communities;
  • Activate processes to establish underlying conditions with which human service systems and policymakers (in and outside of government institutions) are engaged to hear, understand and respect cultural community voices.

Furthermore, we believe that the following areas of CMCCF’s demonstrated experience define the territory that makes us a unique ally in concert with our network to bring diverse voices forward:

  • the ability to go broadly and deeply both within and across many cultural communities to address issues of concern. Engagements over the years have brought together members from diverse communities to engage in dialogues that are of deep concern to communities and which require the ability to establish safe and trusting environments where community members can feel comfortable sharing their voices;
  • the ability and experience to both curate and disseminate the information, perspectives, and issues shared within numerous community engagements to a broader audience in a manner that is respectful, transparent, and clear to all;
  • the ability to bring members of diverse communities together to work collectively to address issues of shared concern;
  • the ongoing experience and knowledge acquired in hearing the voices of community members as they have shared their experiences and thoughts about systemic discrimination, racism and their calls for equity, diversity and inclusion across systems;
  • the increasing knowledge acquisition and recognition of the importance of promoting youth leadership now within communities;
  • at a very concrete and practical level, the staff of the organization has many years of experience in community development, engagement and values-driven activities.

Now to Speak about our Coalition

Our coalition is working on big systemic challenges and how we can improve the situation within our cultural communities. As a coalition, we reach across boundaries of non-profit organizations, cultural community organizations, individuals, the private sector and government. These are large cross-sectoral multi-sectoral process processes that are based on voluntary and relationship-based structures rather than formal task-directed structures and networks.

Through a coalition, we connect otherwise separate spheres of activities that bear on significant challenges by aligning various organizations and individuals behind our purpose.  We believe that we are well suited for addressing systemic challenges because we can harness and utilize various capabilities quickly and flexibly, by identifying where and who has these strengths and talents and are available.

CMCCF’s Critical Factors that Influences and Strengthens our Capacity to Act

We have identified several critical factors that influence and strengthen our ability to act as a coalition with our allies and participants from many cultural communities.

  • Open Boundaries

In our coalition, there are no barriers to participation. Barriers are low, participants give time, resources and expertise according to their means and interests. Our partners, our allies and our participants tap their personal and professional relationships to recruit others as new participants to join us. By acting this way, the reach of the coalition broadens and its receptivity/mutuality to its goals extends beyond the current network.

Of course, low barriers to entry also mean low barriers to exit. We see that as an advantage and we see this all the time. Participants at the periphery simply fade away if they disagree rather than making a fuss, lowering the conflict level.

  • Emergent structures for evolving tasks

Many coalitions often confront challenges for which there are no proven paths, so it can be easy to become mired in time-wasting debates about how to get organized. We believe that successful coalitions attempt to minimize rules and requirements and just dive in. Participants remain independent and continue to carry out their work as it is aligned with our vision, values and strategies.

At different times, we have seen different groups bear the brunt of the workload. Many of our partners collaborate with us and often self-organize into working groups and roundtables to focus on areas of great interest. Their capability needs to shift over time, some challenges are addressed and others surface.

Ultimately, in our conversations, we are working together. We focus on tasks but also on nurturing new relationships. Our staff of the coalition’s backbone organization coordinates schedules and tasks. This is important to ensure that we are not working cross purposes or duplicate efforts. With network participants, the backbone staff has a direct role in constantly negotiating common ground.

  • Vision and specific purpose determined life span

We know that high-impact coalitions are intended to solve problems that can’t be handled without the collaboration or alignment of multiple entities. Chronic multifaceted, structurally rooted challenges call for deep systemic change. As some problems are addressed, new ones arise. That’s why successful coalitions may evolve into platforms that coordinate multiple projects and successions of issues. One round of work is followed by another as activities gradually become aligned behind a way of doing new things together. This is when the coalition has high network participant engagement.

Overall high impact coalitions keep structures and rules loose but relationships are tight. The coalition as a network maintains a great deal of independence and has discretion about participation.

We know that strong relationships serve as control mechanisms to gently steer efforts to be very productive. Coalitions seek diversity, inclusion, and equity to meet diverse needs in the community, resulting in diverse perspectives on the definition of the challenges. The severity, and the approach to solve or manage these challenges.

Five Organizational Principles Guiding Our Coalition

Five organizational principles guide CMCCF:

  • Exercise Moral Leadership

Successful coalitions are formed out of a sense of higher purpose and dedication to a cause greater than the interest of individual organizations alone. In most cases, the people involved in a coalition and its leadership are put together by respected veterans in the field with a long-standing dedication to the challenges and who share common values. These leaders have a sense of responsibility, tempered by humility. These leaders understand the magnitude of the challenge and are well-positioned to help. To have the reach and share the success they must count on the involvement of many other organizations to make progress. What is required is a significant inspiring vision. This is what attracts followers and the goals of a high-impact coalition should transcend outcomes that independent organization efforts could produce on their own.

  • Operate at a Speed of Trust

The speed and effectiveness of action depending on how quickly trust can be developed. Both good governance and operations for high-impact coalitions are built on trust rather than on formal contracts or other incentives This explains why some coalitions take time to get moving while they’re springing into action immediately. Our coalition drew in many previously established relationships. This assisted us to quickly start to develop an overarching set of strategies, and actions based on dialogue as our tool for broad and deep engagement built purely on trust.

We needed to pay attention to many other factors when we formed our coalition.

We are aware that we needed to pay specific attention to many types of organizations that have very different norms, cultures and stakeholders. We found that in the beginning, it was much more challenging. Also, past troubling histories of conflict between organizations can make representations with long memory suspicious and mistrustful; we paid attention to the relationships of the past and we tried to surmount those as much as possible.

Trust is especially important when no single decision-maker is designated to resolve stalemates. Independent coalition participants have to let go of their proprietary preferred methods as they seek common ground with others. Also, in the context of creating trust, we have found that many minds must agree on definitions and standards, and even harder for everyone to agree on the approach to analyzing data and sharing results. Sharing information openly and abundantly, maintaining high porous boundaries, assigning collective credit and reiterating the purpose behind the task go a long way to sustaining trust.

  • Balance of Commitments

Leaders of high-impact coalitions must be adept at operating in the zone of ‘just right’ and ‘good enough’ to achieve a shared purpose that require little change to the member organization’s system.

We have found this to be a matter of balance. We are conscious of what we can request of our coalition participants, allies or partners, and how much they can commit. What are the resources and their capabilities, their information expertise, or credibility and legitimacy that each person has to offer?

Also, we are aware of the fact that participation will ebb and flow as needs change and new participants come on board. As well, participants from other organizations will need to identify who among their staff will be deployed in coalition work. They will have added responsibility to ensure buy-in from their staff to carry out those commitments. Another consideration is that participants from others organizations may have different roles, goals and time commitments and we will need to ensure that their home organization will gain some form of benefit as well.

Another important consideration for our coalition to be successful will be to understand the various challenges in a collaboration that stem from differences in terms of egos and decision-making styles. We are also ensuring that we are explicit about sharing credit. Human dynamics means that some people want their voices to count more than others. Finding the right balance requires that organizations and individuals who wish to be involved in the coalition work are clear about these considerations before they sign up.

  • Navigating Competing Collaborations

This next principle will stretch the coalition’s leadership skills and its managing relationships.

There are many other organizations, federations, and collaborations in cultural communities and service providers operating in the same space, often vying for the same partnerships. Our coalition boundaries are very fluid and our partnerships and levels of participation are very fluid and are continually adapting and morphing.

Our experience is that getting involved with multiple groups and collaborations can pull any number of organizational resources in too many directions. We are aware that our kind of coalition is not at all bureaucratic with narrow goals, and we have the means to reach beyond what current organizations we already know.

We are consciously aware that it is about the right balance. This means that when making a change in large-scale systems can be contentious.  One coalition or collaboration might actively undermine another often by mobilizing people or organizations that have been left out of the process. We must be aware and actively engage others to ensure that we have opportunities to collaborate or at worst not operate at cross-purposes.

  • Focus on Possibilities

When focusing attention on the possibilities and future solutions, our coalition is designed to produce ‘public good’ results, not to generate competitive advantages for our participants, partners and individuals. As a coalition, our focus is not to focus attention on one organization to improve their reach beyond what they already know. We, as a coalition will succeed best when all of those who are involved in the coalition’s work is open to learning from one another to guide the shared vision and joint action along the way; they may even change their thinking. Also, we know that all forms of collaboration combine ideas from various organizations and tap much creativity, find innovations and fill gaps.

What is exciting for us is that we know that formal and informal leaders with imagination will see ways that their organizations can capture some future value from what they’ve learned in this experience.

This is about the benefits of their participation. Also, these leaders will remain personally involved in the ideas flowing from our coalition and will be open to their ideas improving to see and act on new possibilities, especially when the coalition reaches well beyond the usual suspects of various peers and into the community.

They will learn from others’ expertise, and perhaps will be able to enlarge their networks and engage with influential people from other sectors. They may benefit from the prestige associated with coalition participation.