Collective impact governance: navigating the pitfalls

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Former backbone leader Sharon Fraser shares insights into navigating collective impact governance.

“Getting the right governance foundations in place is critical in collective impact collaborations. Not so long ago I was working in a collaboration that decided to reset the governance structure.

The idea was to move decision making from leaders in the service system to share power with the community and bring the voice of government and business onto the leadership table. With great enthusiasm and a sense that we were doing something grand we set about doing the work.

From the beginning, things did not go well.

Firstly, four of the amazing service leaders who made the decision to ‘share power’ left their roles and were replaced by four others who were less interested in sharing power. They believed strongly in the ‘expertise’ of the professionals and that it would undermine the work to bring others onto the table – a mindset challenge.

Added to this, we set up an orientation and training package and process for community members coming onto the leadership table but not for the government or service leaders. The upshot was that some of the service and government leaders missed out on enough evidence of what the work looked like.

They were lost and weren’t clear on what they were expected to do. There seemed to be a lot of work directed to setting the scene such as exploring power together, looking at outcomes and talking but there was not enough ‘action.’ Meetings became something that were to be strategised for, not enjoyed.

Thirdly, we had a period where we kept the old leadership table running in parallel to the new one. We thought this would support the transition to the new table. In reality however, as leader of the backbone organisation, I was sharing the same information and decision making to both tables, leading to confusion and frustration.

This perfect storm culminated in a very heated meeting of the original leadership table. They wanted to shut down the new table, abandon the sharing of power and go back to the good old days.

We had been doing well, why had we broken it?

Well, fortunately, we were a part of Opportunity Child, and thanks to the strong relationships and trust we had with this national intermediary, we were able to discuss our issues and co-design and co-produce a solution.

This resulted in a two day ‘resetting of the table’. We spent the first day learning: what is collective impact – really, deeply; what is leadership and how do we lead differently; what does success look like in other places?

The second day focused on rebuilding our table, exploring the work we would do, what the table would lead, how we would make decisions, what we would bring to the table, what we would take away. Over these two days I tried to stay quiet – hard for an opinionated extrovert, but important. Those on the table needed to see that they were leading holding the work, not me.

I am pleased to say this story had a happy ending overall. One service leader remained at odds with the work and left the leadership table but all others got on with what they needed to do: work together to challenge, create and hold the environment for social change so that children, youth and families would do better in the community.

With recent developments, this leadership table is facing new challenges but they are the ‘right people’ and I feel sure they will prevail.”

This story is told from one person’s perspective and it is important to acknowledge others at this leadership table will have their own views on events that took place.

About the author
Sharon Fraser is the Director of Sharon Fraser Consulting. Sharon is Chair Of The Board Of Directors at Castlemaine Health and has been a backbone lead.

Coming soon: More lessons on good governance.

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