Leveraging Collective Impact in Your Collective Actions: The Common Agenda

This blog is the second in a series of six blogs on how the five conditions of collective impact can inform and improve all collective actions. To view the first blog, an introduction to the series, go here.

What is a common agenda?

The first of the five conditions for a collective impact initiative is a common agenda—a common understanding of the problem among all participants and an agreement of what is most important to focus on.

There are various approaches to how this common agenda manifests in actual initiatives. We suggest that a robust common agenda should have four things:

1. A clear definition of the problem;

2. A concrete overarching goal of what you want to achieve;

3. A shared theory of how change will happen, ideally based on research at the system level; and

4. Priorities for focus in the near term.

Why is a common agenda important for a collective impact initiative?

The common agenda is primary to a collective impact initiative because it creates the foundation for the other four conditions: Shared measures emerge from the overarching goals; participants’ actions are driven by the agenda’s priorities; communications center on the learning and progress of the agenda; the backbone uses the agenda to guide work and support accountability of the participants. The common agenda continues to evolve throughout the life of the initiative, but the heavy lifting happens in the beginning stages.

For a collective impact initiative, the common agenda serves as a unifying force. Often organizations working on the same social issue will have variations in their definition of the problem. When organizations begin working together, these variations result in frustration and fractured actions that undermine the impact of the collective effort if the time is not spent upfront developing a common agenda. Participants do not have to agree on all aspects of the issue, but they do need to develop clarity and agreement on detailed primary goals in order to have productive dialogue and aligned actions.

What can the concept of a common agenda offer all collectives?

Collaborations that are not using the full collective impact framework generally will not need the extensive scope of a collective impact common agenda. However, establishing a clear vision and measurable goals is essential to empowering the partners to fully engage.

The benefit of this shared direction seems obvious, yet we often short change this step because we don’t fully appreciate the influence it has. The power of the common agenda goes beyond the planned actions. When people take ownership of a set of shared goals, they begin to align both their planned and unplanned actions to those goals. Real change happens from the combination of the larger, planned efforts and the smaller, daily actions all contributing to progress toward the goals.

Within an organization there are a multitude of operational and functional structures that, along with the vision, mission and values, guide everyone’s planned and unplanned actions. In coalitions or partnerships those organizational structures, such as policies, work processes, and common approaches based on content expertise, do not exist. This, of course, is intentional because the benefit of the partnership is to bring varying perspectives, expertise and resources from these different organizations to bear on a common issue. However, this lack of organizational tools to guide action makes the investment in establishing a clear vision with widespread ownership even more critical to making the partnership work.

Without a strong shared agenda, at best, partners will complete actions they agree to collectively. But the true synergy of the collective will be hindered by the competing influences of their organizational cultures. A strong common agenda can break through these barriers and enable partnerships to grow and thrive, realizing and even surpassing their own aspirations for impact.

In the next blog we will explore shared measurement systems.