Making A Collective Impact For Animals
An article from John Kania and Mark Kramer at FSG is relevant to anyone thinking about the status and future of non-human animals. In the article, “Collective Impact,” the authors argue that large and complex social issues (animal protection, anyone?) require a paradigm shift in how we work together, set goals, and measure our progress. They identify five conditions for collective success: “a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support organizations.” How can advocates (and their funders) apply these ideas to help animals more effectively?
“Large-scale social change requires broad cross-sector coordination, yet the social sector remains focused on the isolated intervention of individual organizations.“ This is certainly true for animal advocacy as well — there is much that we can do to coordinate more effectively with each other as well as with the government and even corporations. Kania and Kramer discuss how a “collective impact initiative” might work, using public education in Cincinnati as an example. Much of the article emphasizes shared goals and shared evaluation, both of which are topics of great interest to those of us at Faunalytics.
Collective impact in general, and evaluation in particular, are partly the responsibility of funders. I have some experience in this area because, for many years, one of Faunalytics’ partners was the Handsel Foundation, a small family foundation that provides grants to spay/neuter organizations in Oregon and Washington State. I have worked with the foundation’s grantees to measure their impact and have also worked with the Animal Grantmakers, an affinity group of animal-related funders. Those foundations are supporting some amazing work, but like the organizations they support, most seem to focus on individual programs or issues rather than the overall social change that we are all trying to achieve for animals.
I certainly do not mean to suggest that it would be easy to agree on common goals, work more closely together, and evaluate our work at the community or even societal level. But to achieve substantive change for animals I think we need to be heading in this direction. Fortunately, we do not always have to reinvent the wheel and can learn a lot from people who have made strides in other social movements, as well as from experts like Kania and Kramer. Getting back to their article, below are the five conditions for collective success, with my take on what they mean for animal advocates.
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1) Common Agenda
Kania and Kramer say the first requirement for creating collective impact is developing “a shared vision for change that includes a common understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving it through agreed upon actions.” Of the five conditions, this might be the most difficult for animal advocates. I have seen coalitions come and go, often without much to show for the collaboration. In part this is due to lack of time and resources, but it is also seemingly innate that people have strong and sometimes unyielding opinions about the suffering of animals.
However, that suffering is far too pervasive for advocates to impact in any meaningful way unless we have a common agenda. What if, instead of the mostly fragmented advocacy we have now, every organization in the U.S. focused on a handful of legislative, corporate, and/or consumer changes? Research could be used to identify “gateway goals” that are both achievable and will serve as stepping stones on the path to bigger goals. Funders and advocates alike need to ask what we could accomplish with a common agenda.
2) Shared Measurement
I’m excited by the authors’ concept of shared measurement, which involves agreement among the partners regarding how success will be measured and data will be collected and reported. Creating shared data systems would be a huge boon for animal advocates who are working on similar issues. Information is power, as the saying goes, and collecting and sharing that information collaboratively is even more powerful. There are some excellent examples of this in the companion animal world.
For instance, the new Comparative Database of Shelter Statistics, recently released by Maddie’s Fund, allows for detailed comparisons of programs or communities using data based on the Asilomar Accords and Shelter Animals Count. Similarly, The ASPCA’s community partnership programs are evaluated using “naked data” collected and stored in a shared dashboard accessible to the participants. Both organizations deserve major credit for investing in such systems.
Advocates working on other animal issues could also benefit from shared measurement. For instance, pooling and analyzing data on the conversion rates for orders of new vegetarian/vegan starter kits, or joining together at the community level to track animal-related indicators for your city or state. There are also organizational measures that could be shared for mutual benefit, such as goals for specific geographic areas or the average cost of a new Facebook fan. In the end, the shared measurement that matters most will be focused on the common agenda identified for a specific issue or initiative. For more on this topic, see my article from 2007 on “Information Management and the State of the Animals.”
3) Mutually Reinforcing Activities
According to Kania and Kramer, “The power of collective action comes not from the sheer number of participants or the uniformity of their efforts, but from the coordination of their differentiated activities through a mutually reinforcing plan of action.” Indeed, no single organization can accomplish everything for animals on its own. When working together, consciously or not, animal advocates are most effective when serving a role that makes use of their unique strengths.
Ideally, a collective impact initiative will have a diverse range of animal organizations and other stakeholders who take on specific roles and responsibilities for the overall initiative. However, even if those roles sometimes overlap, all participants in the initiative should agree that their activities will be consistent with the shared vision and the common agenda. As the article’s authors state, “The multiple causes of social problems… cannot be addressed by uncoordinated actions among isolated organizations.”
4) Continuous Communication
The authors correctly note that creating a meaningful collaboration takes time, often “several years of regular meetings,” both to gain the trust of fellow participants and also to sort out roles and communications. Two points of note for animal advocates: 1) Most animal groups are extremely short on resources, including time, so communications should be brief, but regular enough to keep people engaged; 2) The collaboration is much less likely to succeed if the participating organizations’ leaders are not involved. Collective projects are often relegated to the back burner when it comes to time and resources, but to be effective they must also be a priority for the participants. Continuous communication among partners can help establish trust and maintain focus for the initiative.
5) Backbone Organizations
Faunalytics is one kind of backbone organization, providing the research tools and expertise to facilitate collective impact initiatives, but here the authors have something else in mind. Kania and Kramer argue that such initiatives are doomed to fail if a support infrastructure is not in place. “Creating and managing collective impact requires a separate organization and staff with a very specific set of skills to serve as the backbone for the entire initiative” they write, “The expectation that collaboration can occur without a supporting infrastructure is one of the most frequent reasons why it fails.”
I have personally seen a few collaborations fail, in part because of the lack of basic support for what is usually an all-volunteer effort. If animal advocates do choose to focus our energy around a small number of key initiatives, then we will also need to make a commensurate investment in infrastructure. This applies to advocacy organizations and funders alike, but foundations must take the lead because they will be among the first to recognize the need for one or more “backbone” organizations to support and sustain a major initiative.