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Pro bono: Collective impact

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Cite as: May 2015 89 (5) LIJ, p.71

Pro bono lawyers can have a big impact in driving social change when working as part of a community of stakeholders.

What do childhood asthma and unemployment among public housing residents have in common? They can both be successfully tackled when diverse groups come together to effect transformative social change.

Opportunity Chicago – a collective impact effort that aimed to transform public housing – is evidence of such change. Bringing together foundations, government agencies, not-for-profit organisations and employers, Opportunity Chicago saw the placement of 6000 public housing residents in jobs connected to a sweeping plan the city is implementing. The city realised that without jobs providing income to pay for housing, increasing housing supply was a pointless exercise.

Similarly, the Health and Wellness Alliance for Children (a collaboration of hospitals, social services, schools, landlords and government) recognised that the cost of unmanaged asthma in Dallas was $60 million per year. Acknowledging the complex contributing factors to this significant social cost, the Alliance’s working groups were tasked with particular focus areas, such as improving access to healthy physical environments, improving access to healthcare, and equipping families and children for asthma wellness.

For example, an initiative of the healthy environments working group is to introduce asthma experts to code compliance officers, which the Alliance hopes will enable housing officials to recognise asthma risk factors and to incorporate that understanding into housing inspections. In the meantime, the working group responsible for equipping children and families for asthma wellness is establishing health literacy initiatives to support families to provide appropriate care. The participation of a broad range of cross-sector stakeholders across these working groups can achieve a much deeper impact than any of the initiatives working in isolation.

This model, known as collective impact, could serve as a template for a major shift in how communities – including the legal community – deal with entrenched social challenges.

It is becoming widely recognised that long-term, systemic solutions to legal problems must tap into resources beyond the legal profession, and that other social challenges can have legal solutions. As a result, collective impact and stakeholder collaboration was a key theme of the Pro Bono Institute’s 2015 annual conference in Washington DC.

What is collective impact?

While the concept of cross-sector partnerships and collaborations is not a new one, during the plenary session of the Pro Bono Institute conference, Mark Kramer of social impact consultancy FSG Inc. distinguished the collective impact approach to tackling social problems from the more traditional collaborations and partnerships by five key conditions which enable all stakeholders to be truly aligned: a common agenda; shared measurement systems; a backbone organisation responsible for managing strategic direction of an initiative, facilitating data collection and co-ordinating funding opportunities; continuous, frequent communication; and mutually reinforcing activities by each stakeholder group.

He cautioned that before a collective impact effort should even be launched, key preconditions must exist: an influential champion who can bring together cross-sector leaders at the CEO-level and maintain their long-term engagement, adequate financial resources through anchor funders who can mobilise the resources to pay for infrastructure and planning, and an urgent need for change that provides sufficient incentives for people to work together using a fundamentally different approach.

Recipe for success

The key ingredients, however, for a successful collective impact effort are time and patience. Mr Kramer identified these as perhaps the greatest challenge for successfully building a collective impact movement that engages a broad range of organisations in a drive towards shared goals. Before an initiative can be implemented, the initial phases of a collective impact effort (collecting baseline data; creating a strong backbone of steering committees and working groups; and aligning stakeholders through agreed goals, agendas and measures) can take from six months to two years to bed down, depending on the breadth of community engagement required. The action phase of a collective impact effort – implementing projects, engagement and advocacy, and tracking results, can take upwards of 10 years.

Equally challenging is the shift in mindset required of funders, who must be prepared to sacrifice the benefit of taking credit for short-term interventions in favour of seeing very gradual improvements over a long period of time. In short, there must be a genuine desire from all parties not just for a fundamental resolution of social problems, but to change the causal factors that underlie them.

What about the lawyers?

Depending on the unique elements of the broader social problem being addressed, the role of community and pro bono lawyers in a collective impact effort might range from law reform and advocacy work to outreach legal services. But it should not necessarily fall to the legal profession, or indeed to any one stakeholder individually, to create or lead these movements. Rather, lawyers must be prepared to leave their egos at the door, ready to complement, rather than direct, the efforts of all stakeholders through the acknowledgement of their role as an important, but ultimately small piece in a very complex puzzle.

REBECCA McMAHON is the manager of pro bono relationships at Justice Connect.

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