Insights from a Collective Impact initiative in Australia

In August 2014 David Lilley, on behalf of United Way Australia, began scoping a Collective Impact initiative in Mt Druitt Western Sydney. Within the Mt Druitt postcode (2770), approximately one in three children still start school each year identified as ‘developmentally vulnerable’, despite decades of investment and hundreds of services operating within the region.

The Hive is the resulting Collective Impact initiative, spanning child, family, community and system level work to ensure all children in the 2770 postcode are supported to start school positioned for success. It has been co-designed as a:
• place to host collaborative work at 24 Anderson Ave, Blackett NSW
• process for working together
• team to project manage the work
• network of individuals and organisations committed to achieving change.

18 months after launching The Hive, David documents his reflections from the field.

There is much that could be said about how The Hive has interpreted and applied the Collective Impact framework, what has and has not worked, and what we have learned along the way. This article is inspired by a recent Tamarack Institute paper on the evolution of Collective Impact by Mark Cabaj and Liz Weaver, Collective Impact 3.0: An evolving framework for community change’  which highlighted the approach as a solid framework to guide wide scale community change, providing it continually evolves to incorporate changes in theory and practice. Here, I reflect further on how Collective Impact is delivered in the field, covering four issues of central importance to our journey to date in Mt Druitt.

  1. Developing the right governance structure

The Hive Mt Druitt was initiated by funders rather than local community stakeholders. While in this context it was natural that they would form a Governance Group, to set strategic direction and provide oversight of the work, it also presented a number of challenges. State and national managers would meet in the centre of Sydney, approximately 45km from Mt Druitt, to make decisions about a community they were not part of. It became clear that this would not foster the local ownership and commitment needed to drive real community change in the Mt Druitt postcode.

How did we respond to this learning? We held a full day leadership and governance workshop with stakeholders including community members, service providers, government agencies, business and philanthropy, to explore what governance structures and processes we needed to achieve our ambitions. This resulted in the formation of a local Leadership Group to collectively own The Hive’s Five Year Strategy and provide oversight of implementation. Meanwhile, the Governance Group morphed into an Ambassador Group, focused on supporting the local Leadership Group. When the Leadership Group hits a policy, funding, political or other barrier, it can now call on the Ambassador Group to troubleshoot resolution to these more ‘systems level’ challenges.

  1. Defining who we mean by ‘the community’?

While most recent writing on Collective Impact emphasises the need for deep engagement with community, its often not clear who this is. The Hive covers a postcode of 60,000 people, of diverse backgrounds and experiences, spread across 12 suburbs. We simply cannot engage everyone. We debated trying to involve representatives from different geographic locations and populations, but only a small percentage of the population could realistically be involved. Who really speaks on behalf of their whole community, or specific sub-community?

Our approach evolved to work at two levels simultaneously. One, involving small numbers of community representatives, works to deliver system oriented work across the postcode. For example, we currently have a working group developing a plan to improve participation in, and the quality of, education across 46 preschools.

In parallel, we ask the community – with an invitation open to anyone and everyone – what is important to them. This enables us to focus on identifying and responding to local priorities in individual suburbs, with high levels of involvement from those living in the suburb. This also provides a mechanism for identifying community representatives and leaders for involvement in our postcode level work.

  1. Enabling a neutral backbone organisation

The core role of a backbone organisation is to facilitate, coordinate and project manage a Collective Impact initiative on behalf of, and with accountability to, local stakeholders. To be effective this requires genuine neutrality, such that all stakeholders trust the backbone to act based on collective will, in the best interests of the community, rather than pushing a particular issues or funding agenda. In many scenarios this leads to the creation of a new, small incorporated body, that lacks staffing depth, diversity and capability, and requires extensive administrative burdens to establish.

  1. Ensuring the core capabilities to enable Collective Impact

United Way has identified nine capabilities that are central to the provision of backbone support, based on our experience in Mt Druitt. It is not essential that one person possess all these capabilities, but they should be available within the backbone team and broader leadership and governance structure.

Community mobilisation

Community mobilisation ensures alignment of the work with the aspirations of community, and builds a broad movement for change in the community. The Harwood Institute’s concept of ‘Turning Outward’, and their Community Conversations Guides, are valuable tools for this.


While almost every stakeholder in Mt Druitt says they believe in collaboration and the importance of this for achieving better outcomes for children, this enthusiasm can wain quickly when the need for compromise and change is realised. The influencing factors here are the depth and breadth of collaboration. If stakeholders are simply expected to collaborate on specific initiatives that the backbone has identified, they are likely to push back hard unless there is a robust basis for seeking collective commitments and collective action. To foster shared ownership and commitment across all elements and phases of the work, The Hive has drawn on co-design methods that facilitate collaborative learning, planning, decision making and action.


My friend Nyk Loates from KPMG tells me that everything we do should be “by design and not by default”. We need to consciously design our meetings (including the agenda, room layout and facilitation), documents, services and indeed all that we do in Collective Impact, to ensure it facilitates progress towards attaining our shared aspirations. This can only happen when we give primacy to stakeholder needs, rather than a backbone’s own administrative priorities. One particularly useful resource to guide this is IDEO’s Design Kit: The Field Guide to Human Centred Design.


As Albert Einstein wrote, “we cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them”. If we aim to create lasting positive change in communities, we need to think and act differently. The Hive uses a basic innovation model that helps us to agree on priorities, incubate (prototype, test and improve) solutions on a small scale, and then spread these across the postcode.

Measurement and evaluation

Two key elements of Collective Impact are shared measurement and evaluation for continuous learning and improvement. Both can be conducted with either a technical and/or a pragmatic bias. Shared measurement must be simple enough that stakeholders from different backgrounds understand it, and rigorous enough that they see value in it, and its ability to track progress. Evaluation should help all those involved in Collective Impact to understand how the initiative is progressing, and how those involved can continuously improve our efforts. Michael Quinn Patton’s Developmental Evaluation provides a useful framework to employ various measurement and evaluation methods.

Mindset and culture

Collective Impact requires us to stay focused on the attainment of our shared aspirations. For The Hive, structures, processes, tools, plans and activities are subservient to our shared goal(s); they are a means to an end rather than the end itself. When something does not work, we stop it or change it. When something works, we look at how to leverage this to extend the benefits. This is not the norm when it comes to community services, where the default mindset is business as usual (language, meetings, programs, competition for funding etc). Collective Impact aims to disrupt the status quo, without confusing people. This requires modelling a different culture and mindset, one that challenges, is focused on outcomes, and defaults to the collaborative development of solutions to shared challenges.

Resource mobilisation

One of the biggest challenges Collective Impact initiatives face is the need for continuity of resources, in an environment well known for short term funding cycles and regular changes to funding guidelines. This work requires seeking multiple types of resources, from various sources, on different cycles – cash funding, pro bono support, and volunteer time, from three levels of government, as well as the local community, business, philanthropy and social services.

Systems thinking

The social challenges Australia faces are complex. The variables involved are numerous, interconnected and mutually reinforcing. The traditional way of dealing with them is to identify a small number of bite size chunks to respond to with standard programs. We know that this approach often does not lead to long term change for individuals at scale and communities as a whole. Systems thinking can help us to see the bigger picture, and design our initiatives to respond to underlying issues and causes, by taking into account system dynamics. David Peter Stroh’s Systems Thinking for Social Change and Brenda Zimmerman’s Getting to Maybe: How the world is changed are great resources to guide this thinking.

Adaptive leadership

If the service system in Mt Druitt (or any location where complex issues underlie community disadvantage) worked well, and the needs of children and families were being met, there would be no need for Collective Impact. Using this approach is a response to the failure of ‘business as usual’. It requires a different kind of leadership – an adaptive leadership, that brings together the above capabilities in a way that fulfils a famous quote by Lau Tzu: “When the best leader’s work is done the people say, ‘We did it ourselves’.”


We believe Collective Impact offers a significant opportunity to guide the community and systems level change to ensure families and communities can thrive in Mt Druitt – indeed, we are already seeing signs of deep and positive change. We hope that sharing these reflections from the field, including United Way’s insights as The Hive’s backbone, your own collaborative practice will benefit. Please feel welcome to contact us to discuss Collective Impact further.

About the author: David Lilley is the founding Director of The Hive, a Collective Impact initiative in Mt Druitt that works to improve outcomes for children across the 2770 postcode, co-founded in 2014 by United Way Australia, the ten20 foundation and NSW Family and Community Services. Prior to this David did extensive work developing client-centred responses to public housing estate challenges in NSW, including developed and management pf Working Together in Minto, a forerunner to what would become known as Collective Impact. Since 2010, David has held a Visiting Fellowship at the City Futures Research Centre at the University of New South Wales.





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