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We need Digital Collective Impact

By Tris Lumley 21 August 2019 3 minute read

NPC is a non-profit organisation, whose mission is to help the social sector achieves its greatest potential. Helping the sector to harness the benefits of digital technology is, therefore, at the heart of our mission. Armed with decades of collective experience of trying to help non-profit organisations build their capacity in areas like impact measurement, evaluation and governance, we believe there is a need for more ambitious thinking on digital technology than ‘Capacity-Building 101’.

Collective Impact is a model that has gained significant ground since it was coined by FSG in 2011. There are significant and important critiques of the model, from the theoretical – failing to build on the long heritage and literature on collaboration and community development, to the practical – resulting in greater power imbalances between those involved in collective impact initiatives and those not. Rather than being papered over or ignored, these critiques should certainly be addressed in new models that build from collective impact.

But it’s clear that collective impact has brought renewed energy and enthusiasm to collaborative efforts in at least some areas of the social sector. The US, Australia, and more recently the UK have all seen significant growth in interest in collective impact models, and with it new investment into sophisticated systems change efforts.

The model’s growing recognition gives it currency in the complex and often esoteric world of the social sector. And its basis in common sense makes it a good platform to build a new approach to digital transformation in the social sector – Digital Collective Impact.

What is Digital Collective Impact?

At its heart, Digital Collective Impact is a simple model: a collaboration between multiple organisations to identify and deliver on the highest impact opportunities for digital technology, for the benefit of the common group of people or communities they exist to serve.

We believe it is more than just a collective impact approach, for a number of reasons, connected both with the fact that we’re building technology (not just programmes or services) and the fact that technology has the potential to fundamentally place the user at the centre of the solution (and so should we in our approach to research, governance and design).

While this is early-stage thinking, that needs to be fleshed out in practice in as many instances as possible, we think it is valuable to tease out the elements of the collective impact model at different stages of the development of an initiative:

Initiation stage Development stage Maturity stage
Backbone Catalyse & convene, Fundraise Build capacity in key areas & orgs Infrastructure, Product management
Common agenda User research – wants & needs, Practitioner experience, Evidence-informed Governance continually triangulates user, practitioner, evidence Data drives collective strategies from bottom-up
Reinforcing activities Mapping complex system, Taking user perspective Developing managed pathways, Individual navigates & populates Personalised ecosystem of support & services
Constant comms & shared measurement Build on evidence & user research Developing pathway dashboards Real-time data drives learning & KPIs

With a technology lens, these stages are essential – initially we are developing a project, and the backbone’s role is to catalyse, convene, bring resources to the table, and build relationships. But ultimately we are building technology products, built on data and systems infrastructure, business models that make them sustainable, and product management teams that support and develop them. The backbone in that later scenario looks entirely different, and is a mix of real infrastructure, and collaborative/platform business models, and skills distributed between partner organisations.

What’s next?

This is a brief introduction to a concept that we believe needs to emerge, be fleshed out, and develop in the real world, based on NPC’s thinking and work to date on tech for social good. It builds on Tech for common good – the general call to collective action we published in 2015 – and My Best Life – the first stage of a project putting this collective approach into practice.

Digital Collective Impact also builds fundamentally on NPC’s growing body of work on user-centred approaches, user-centred design, involvement and feedback. It has always been our aim to put the user perspective at the heart of non-profit and philanthropic practice, largely using the tools of impact measurement and evaluation to tell that user story. But more recently, we have embraced a broader suite of approaches, tools and mindsets, that help us to bring a user perspective more fully to bear on the work of the social sector. And we see digital technology as a crucial tool in those efforts.

Non-profits believe, when you talk to them about their values and principles, about putting the people they exist to serve at the centre of their decision-making, but often don’t know how to do that in practice. The tech sector, meanwhile, has learned the practical lesson that building tech products and services without user-centred design is… risky. The world of agile, iterative, testing-led development is now a pretty solid fixture of the tech sector, for pragmatic reasons as much as for any principle.

Putting the two sectors, and their two sets of strengths, together gives us huge potential to innovate in how we approach tech for social good.

NPC will be working on the theme of Digital Collective Impact as a central priority for the next five years at the very minimum. We are actively seeking partners to help us develop this crucial work, to:

  • develop Digital Collective Impact initiatives
  • identify examples of initiatives already working on tech in a collaborative approach
  • extract and share insight from these initiatives – those we develop and those we unearth
  • explore the development of a Digital Collective Impact Accelerator, to open up this area of practice to groups of organisations and teams committed to taking this path
  • join us as engaged funders and investors, helping resource this work and join us as equal partners in the exploration and learning that’s ahead