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SOCF President: What is collective impact?

Below is a blog that originally appeared on ProjectHeard.com on the essential value of collaboration and collective impact at Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland, particularly in the area of homelessness. 

How do you tackle a complex problem? With all the help you can get.

by Susanna H. Krey, President, Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland

Ending homelessness. That sounds like a lofty goal, doesn’t it? It’s an idea so complex that it doesn’t seem like it can be done. However, at the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland, we’ve already seen a drastic drop in the number of people experiencing long-term homelessness in our county. In fact, community partners recently announced that, together, we are on pace to end long-term homelessness in Cuyahoga County by the close of 2020.

How is that possible? For us, the key was recognizing that it couldn’t be done alone.

The Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland addresses health, education and housing for vulnerable populations, and we rely heavily on our ability to convene, collaborate and be a voice at the table. We find community connection is just as important to our success as our grantmaking.

So when we, along with others in the community, set our sights on ending homelessness in Cuyahoga County, we knew we needed to get strong community partners on the same team. Over time, this partnership has evolved into a successful collective impact model.

I know that one of the best ways to be successful is to lift up the successes of those around you. In my work, I hire people with different strengths and expertise than I have. My knowledge and perspective is enhanced by listening to these experts, and the work of the foundation is much better for it.

This is the heart of the collective impact model – recognizing that no single organization can tackle or solve a complex issue, like homelessness, on its own.

The collective impact model offers five main conditions of collective success, as first identified by John Kania & Mark Kramer in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. By outlining these five conditions, I want to show you just how we were able to work together toward our goal of ending homelessness.

1 – A Common Agenda

Success in collective impact begins with a shared vision for change, a common understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving it. Back in 2001, we helped to assemble a group of representatives from the city, county, other local funders, various service providers, property management firms and community organizations to meet regularly to discuss how to tackle long-term homelessness in Cuyahoga County. As the idea began to resonate with these groups, a handful of organizations stepped up to take the lead. Enterprise Community Partners Inc., along with the City of Cleveland/Cuyahoga County Office of Homeless Services and the Sisters of Charity Foundation, led the planning efforts, and after two years, developed a plan for the initiative, which was named “Housing First.”

2 – Shared Measurement Systems

Because that common agenda won’t mean much if we’re not delivering results, it’s essential that partners agree on how data will be collected and results will be measured. This not only ensures that all work is aligned, but it also allows us to hold one another accountable to our areas of the initiative. For Housing First, we knew we were tracking individuals experiencing long-term homelessness, which make up about 20 percent of homeless populations. We rely on annual measurements from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) that illustrate how many people are homeless at a given time. By this measure, long-term homelessness in our county has dropped by 86 percent since 2006.

3 – Mutually Reinforcing Activities

Here’s where my philosophy of letting the experts speak for themselves comes into play. The success of collective impact depends on the collaboration of each participating organization doing what it does best to reach a shared goal. During the implementation of Housing First, we looked to groups like Enterprise Community Partners, FrontLine Service, CHN Housing Partners and EDEN, Inc. to strengthen Housing First’s approach in the key areas of property development, supportive employment and mental health services, housing management and administrative and technical support.

4 – Continuous Communication

When the Sisters of Charity helped convene partner organizations for Housing First, we knew the tremendous amount of trust involved. Each participant may work at a different pace, or have different needs to find true success in their area – and we have to trust that in the end, we are all working toward that common agenda. For some groups, this can take years. After more than 16 years of work on Housing First, I can tell you that our open and frank conversations among partners have been some of the most important stepping stones to getting us to where we are today.

5 – Backbone Support Organizations

Often, groups will see collaboration fail because they forget an essential element: collaboration needs a supporting infrastructure. From the beginning of Housing First, Enterprise Community Partners – with support from the Sisters of Charity Foundation of Cleveland – provided the primary management functions for the overall initiative. We worked to ensure project sponsors were well educated in the Housing First model of permanent supportive housing, and we made sure that each partner had sufficient resources to effectively develop and manage projects.

After nearly two decades of collective impact in the Housing First initiative, I’m thrilled with the success we’ve seen. Today, Cleveland has one of the lowest populations of unsheltered individuals, and we are on target to end long-term homelessness in our county by 2020.

There are so many vast, complex social issues, like homelessness, that may seem insurmountable to just one person or organization. But our work in the Housing First initiative demonstrates that when several diverse experts can come together to focus on a common agenda, we can make the impossible possible, and take another big step toward a more equitable world for all of us.

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