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Collective Impact – What Could It Mean for Christians in Social Work?

BeilJ1212Recently I played the role of “Top Chef” in the collective impact test kitchen at the Goodwill Industries International Action4Impact summit here in D.C., so I’ve been doing some research and thinking about the collective impact model of change.

In the human services world, collective impact is a well-defined approach to change.  Most useful for tackling complex problems, the collective impact model requires participation from any number of organizations, governmental leaders, businesses and philanthropic organizations who commit to a shared vision and goal. The representatives from the resulting group work together to drive continuous improvement, using their individual expertise in service to the commonly held desired outcome. Importantly,  ongoing communication in support of the collaboration is facilitated by what is often called a “backbone” organization charged with supporting the group’s effort and maintaining the integrity of the process.

As an example, let’s say a metropolitan area wanted to end family homelessness within five years (the shared goal).  Attending bi-weekly meetings organized and facilitated by a small non-profit that serves as the backbone organization, the director of public housing, several local housing developers, the CEO of the agency running the homeless shelter, the director of public welfare, the president of the community college, the director of the homelessness prevention program, the director of the community foundation, the superintendent of schools (you get the idea) agree to mutually reinforcing activities and a shared set of metrics to evaluate progress.  Each doing what they do best, reporting regularly on the barriers and successes, and tweaking the plan along the way, the community slowly but steadily moves forward toward their shared goal.

The model makes perfect sense and done correctly has been shown to work.  It does require public will, serious commitment, and considerable resources.  It’s not easy.  But if it shows results against what have heretofore seemed to be intractable societal problems, why aren’t we all using it in our communities?

While I leave you to ponder that question, I’d like to turn my attention to the potential “collective impact” of Christian social workers.  Let me be clear from the start.  I’m not talking here about proselytizing.  I’ve always seen my role as a social worker, not only in direct service, but also in administration, as being the heart and hands of Christ in the world today.  We have the potential to convey to those with whom and for whom we work that they have dignity and value; that their lives matter.  In our “throw away” culture, where so many people are considered expendable, where human rights are so readily trampled upon, and where the political or financial power of the few overwhelms concern for the common good, we are called to be salt for the earth and light for the world.

I’m sure there are many reading this blog post today who sincerely believe, like I do, that they are faithfully doing their best to bring the good news to those they encounter…one by one, day after day.  And yet, our world is wounded; its problems seemingly intractable.  Perhaps we need to start thinking about how to achieve collective impact.  What might be our agreed upon goals?  How can we measure success?  What tools should we be using to communicate with each other effectively, to support each other, to help eliminate barriers and celebrate successes?  What entity(s) can take the role of the “backbone” organization to keep us all focused?

While probably not the answer to all of our questions, the recently-formed NACSW member interest group focused on poverty alleviation might be a place to begin to investigate the potential of collective impact on the goal of educating and supporting churches and faith groups to play a more active, vital role in joining broader community and societal efforts to combat poverty locally, domestically, and around the world.

As the Vice President for Programs and Services since 2005, Jean Beil, is responsible for program development, implementation and evaluation for Catholic Charities USA, the national office for the network of more than 2,700 Catholic Charities agencies and institutions working to reduce poverty in America and serving over 9 million people of all faiths each year.  Jean is a licensed clinical social worker with experience in mental health and services to homeless individuals and families.  She has dual master’s degrees in Social Work from NYU and in Religion from LaSalle University. Jean has been a member of NACSW since 2007.

3 thoughts on “Collective Impact – What Could It Mean for Christians in Social Work?

  1. Thanks for this great post Jean! I am a big fan of collective action. I think your idea of working through interest groups is a good one. I would love to see several interest groups within NACSW form–my passion is domestic violence among faith groups. I think we could collectively really make a difference!

  2. A group of churches have taken this thinking to heart and started The Constellation Network in southeastern PA.

    Do you know of other Christian groups around the country with a desire to use the collective impact framework?

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