The fresh air (and how-to!) of shared impact

Today we chat with Joel Veborg, former Project Lead for Save The Children, about Malmö’s groundbreaking collaborative for change.

Imagine having two or three big organizations committed to a two or three-year plan with no defined destination. All you know is that you’re committed to the problem that you all intersect with, one way or another.

A problem like Let’s make life better for kids. They might be hungry, under-educated, under-supported. They might be in families under stress. What would ‘better’ look like? And who’s in charge of ‘better’?

These kinds of problems crash land back and forth from one organization’s territory to the next, not fixing in a single one but shaking them all. How on earth do we begin—and how can we help each other?

Malmö’s Save The Children was formed to empower youths and their families, but as Joel Veborg writes, his team’s efforts weren’t enough: “Even with two or three hours a week of coaching, the kids still felt discrimination, didn’t have much school support, or their parents had a hard time getting jobs. There’s so much that makes a family stable, and that helps kids to have a bright future. Even if we did our best, it was just one small piece of the puzzle. It wasn’t enough.”

So Veborg and the team looked at their broader field, chose a set of organizational peers, and set out to work on the whole rather than its own piece. Following, he tells us about his work with Tim and Tuesday, and the fresh air of collective impact.

When problems are big and thorny—with many factors influencing from many different directions—you’ll have greater impact if you partner up.

Tuesday Ryan-Hart, Tim Merry, and Joel Veborg at work in Malmö, Sweden.

Tuesday Ryan-Hart, Tim Merry, and Joel Veborg at work in Malmö, Sweden.

The only problem a single organization can solve is one of its own problems. Something inside itself, where it has control of all the factors in-play. But none of us have a broad enough scope to address a truly organic, societal, human issue. We extend our jurisdiction and our reach by banding together.

But it almost doesn’t matter how genuinely our organization may share values with another. When you’ve got different mandates—or when several organizations do—it can be hard to not compete, or feel territorial or protective. 

It’s complex enough to be a group of individuals. When organizations work together across mandates, they’re a group of groups. They’re grappling with layers upon layers of each other’s concerns, histories, and priorities—all of which are often misaligned—and they’ll struggle to work through resistance.

It was at this point when we met Tim and Tuesday, and it immediately felt different. From the moment Tim set up the room, it felt like we were on a journey.

To work together differently, you’ll need some kind of structured approach to collaboration.

We—Save The Children along with several other organizations and institutions—shared the desire to set kids on a happy and healthy path in Malmö. First—before Tim and Tuesday—we had tried a collective impact model, which rested on a common agenda, a shared measurement system, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and a backbone of support staff. We learned quite a bit with this approach.

Then we tried an inquiry-based approach, as developed by Swedish education for sustainable development. The focus here was to discover the right questions, making observations, and collecting data to outline possible explanations and create predictions for future study. We learned a lot with this approach, too.

But what we discovered the moment Tim opened our first workshop was that we needed to back up even more. We needed to come up with a whole new language for what we were trying to do. Not only what would we do, but how would we make whatever ‘it’ would turn out to be, possible?

The process model is everything. First, design not the goals—but the work itself.

Without our process model, Forward Malmö would have just felt like another big project with a big budget and—if we were being honest with ourselves—big reservations and doubts.

First, our core team (comprised of a few key people from each organization), started by defining the work process. From there we brought in a bigger group, and they were totally inspired. From there we connected with people at strategic levels, still not yet defining the goal. Only the work. And even this early-on, every step was revelatory. We were building trust—which isn’t easy when you aren’t entirely certain yet what you’re doing.

Imagine asking certain key players to join you, and having them say, “To do what?” And not having a clear answer. It goes against the grain, and no wonder—the working world has trained us all to have a clear goal. None of us are accustomed to the unpredictability of pathfinding together and seeing where we end up.

Pathfinding is an ongoing rally, not a one-off race.

Pathfinding is a whole new way of thinking about progress. No unmet milestone is a failure. Every stall, complaint, or shortfall contained good information. There was always more discovery to be had, and never a brick wall. We were incented to try something else and keep trying. Instead of getting demoralized with every slipped deadline, we adjusted and kept going thanks to the strong process underneath. We had designed the work to make space for experimentation and learning, and we all trusted it.

This is a rallying cry with no central organization. It’s a bunch of people from different places building this together, with everyone bringing what they can.

We cheer each other on. We know failure is practicing success. There’s a contagiousness when people trust you to be in the process. We hold on to each other in it. Tim and Tuesday are really good at giving themselves to the process just as much. They’ve helped us in practical ways I can’t even define.

When the professional is personal, use that fire for light and heat.

This is passionate work. I’m aiming big with this. We are going to make Malmö the best city in the world. But it’s not up to me, is it? I can only assist from arm’s length of where I stand. I feel just as much doubt and pressure as anyone else, and I feel the exposure of that big goal. These are the kinds of problems you know are going to be hard, but there’s enough at-stake that the prospect of improving things makes it all worthwhile.

Get used to the counter-intuitive flip of fast change and slow results.

Sometimes you need to move fast and your organization may not be fitted for that. It can be counter-intuitive to move fast. Or activities may move fast and results come in fast, but big change goes slow. In our process at Forward Malmö, big change moves fast but the results come more slowly. It’s a flip.

Know the best way is always found through a bit of a mess.

Other cities and huge corporations are paying attention to what we’re doing—the UN, New York City, IKEA. They’re all curious about this rallying phenomenon. And meanwhile, we’re in the middle of this wonderful mess.

It’s like all of us—all these disparate people and organizations—have dumped out all their streams-of-consciousness on a shared floor. And we’re all standing around looking at it, moving it around. We see redundancies and baggage and a lot that’s shared. We see material and meaning. Even though a lot of our energy in these early days is looking at the mess, we also see confirmation that where we’re going is the right way.

People say, What on earth are we going to build out of this? But there’s a flow to it. Small prototypes pop up in small groups—so much possibility and so many tactile, ingenious ideas. We see how useful the mess can be when we share it. How useful we can be to each other.

—Joel Veborg


Joel Veborg served as Project Lead of Save The Children in Malmö, Sweden.