Center for New Leadership: Tips For Collective Impact In Rural Vermont

Thank you to Center for New Leadership‘s Red Clover News for sharing this article. Hillary Orsini quotes from an interview with John Sayles of the Vermont Foodbank highlighting factors behind the success of the Cal-Essex Accountable Health Community Collective Impact initiative: 

Over the last two years, Center for New Leadership consultants have been working to make collective impact work in rural Vermont. Small communities face challenges in implementing the model–from low population density to finding the dollars to make initiatives sustainable.


We caught up with John Sayles of the Vermont Foodbank to get his take on collective impact in Vermont. John is a part of the Cal-Essex Accountable Health Community (CACH),  a collective impact initiative currently taking root in the Northeast Kingdom. From our interview with John and our own work we pulled 5 tips for starting a successful collective impact initiatives in Vermont.


1. Be patient.
“[The biggest thing is to] know that this is going to take time, just getting everybody on the same page and figuring out your shared goals can take two years.” “If you don’t have that trust you’re not going to succeed.” -John Sayles
At the Center for New Leadership we make sure that each meeting starts with an opportunity to get to know one another. Our theory is that if folks are going to come back to the meetings for one of two reasons–the relationships are meaningful and enjoyable or the work is compelling and meaningful.


2. Focus on and celebrate small wins.
“There were discrete projects that we were able to all work together and share information and share resources and accomplish them. And then we were able to celebrate that. It has really given us the momentum to keep moving forward.”  -JS
Trust and meaningful work can be built by working on small projects together and creating shared victories. This keeps membership engaged while allowing time to practice sharing resources and working together. It also helps make a strong case when seeking funding or new partners.


3. Get the right people at the table.
“The amazing thing about this initiative is that it has been going on almost three years, and it’s still all CEOs and executive directors coming to the leadership meetings. We have a very open and inclusive culture. Anyone and everyone is invited to come to the meetings, listen to  what’s going on, and participate. I think it’s great. In a community like the NEK people want to know what is going on. It really feels that it is our backyard.” -JS
In small towns it is crucial to have the right people at the table.CAHC has been able to make progress by ensuring that organizations send representatives empowered to make decisions. At CNL we work with groups to build systems that are intentionally inclusive and diverse.


4. Focus on securing resources
“We received one of five three-year, $280,000 grants…to create a structure behind the work that we’re doing and figure out how to create a backbone organization, and actually spend the time and the resources to create shared outcomes and the indicators.” -JS
A collective impact effort cannot succeed without resources to sustain it. Especially in rural areas, resources need to be part of the conversation from the beginning. At the Center for New Leadership we encourage leaders to think of new or unlikely partners, and to involve the for-profit community from the beginning. By formally bringing all seven CAHC partners together they were able to receive a large grant through Feeding America.


5. Don’t reinvent the wheel

“One of the interesting things about Collective Impact, you set your leadership table and then you have work groups in the community working on different aspects of your shared outcomes. But in NEK there are already groups working on these things. It would be insulting to them to start new groups. So right now we’re in process of creating deeper relationships with all of these groups.”  -JS

By mapping what is already going on in a community a collective impact initiative can gain new insights, information, and partnerships. At CNL we base much of our measurement work in results-based accountability, a framework used by the State of Vermont and many other mission-driven organizations. By keeping the methodology consistent we insure that everyone is speaking the same language.

The Center for New Leadership at Marlboro College is a community focused on exploring and applying new approaches to leadership. Working with mission-driven individuals, organizations and coalitions, we build leadership capacity throughteaching, coaching and consulting.

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