Collective impact based on equality and autonomy

Challenges and opportunities of using concepts from sociocracy for networks of organizations.

This article was inspired by a request of a forming group in Italy that aims to adopt and implement the Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development. Achieving this goal that complex is only possible with a structure that is responsive and dynamic. This suggests a decentralized structure that can adapt to conditions locally and over time.

The collective impact framework is a way to address systemic issues that require collaboration between different stakeholders. This could be improving school lunches in a state, requiring producers, towns, districts, schools and school administration, NGOs and other associations to work together. The same is certainly true to achieve any of the agenda 2030’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as they span domains with very many diverse stakeholders.

The collective impact model rests on:

  • a shared agenda
  • a consistent way of measuring and collecting data
  • mutually enforcing activities
  • continuous communication
  • a backbone organization to support the overall effort

This article aims to suggest how this could be supported by a structure inspired by sociocracy. Sociocracy (aka Dynamic Governance) is an egalitarian governance system optimized for effectiveness through decentralized authority and for the principle of transparency and consideration of all voices and all stakeholders.

The principles borrowed from sociocracy are: consent decision-making, decentralized authority in small teams, the distinction between decision-makers and input-givers, linking of teams (aka circles), inclusion of all stakeholder voices, focus on measurement and continuous improvement. In addition to those values, sociocracy aims to foster healthy relationships by taking input seriously, paying attention to different voices and needs, supporting listening and consideration on a macro and micro level of interaction — all carefully guided by the activity’s overall purpose.

The approach here presupposes that any systemic change towards sustainable improvement are best made when the tools we use to achieve the targets associated with the SDGs, at the same time, improve how we relate to each other and to our environment. This is not only about meeting targets and measures, it is about healing our society and environment on a systemic, fundamental level — a unilateral, single-faceted approach will not just perpetuate but reproduce the same systemic issues somewhere else.

Good news, bad news

The agenda 2030 is not a small task. It is complex, daunting, multi-faceted. And yet, it is relevant, urgent and promising. The best news about the agenda 2030 is that it maps out what there is to do.

Good news: we know what’s our target

The agenda 2030 not only comes with areas and overall goals but also with specific targets for each. While groups often struggle with how to define their aim and how to measure their impact, this piece of work has already been done, as well, defining what constitutes success. The two big questions that can paralyze groups are already settled. That’s excellent news! Among the requirements from the collective impact model, the first one, “a shared agenda” can be checked off.

Now it’s “only” about how to do it.

Bad news: there is challenge

So, how can we go about it, especially given that we want the effort to be consistent with their efforts to gather data, mutually reinforce their activities, communicate well and have a backbone organization?

Three challenges that I see around an effort at this scale are (1) finding a suitable structure, (2) funding and (3) training. Let’s look at each.

1. Structure

Topical circles
The traditional sociocratic structure seems to work well for part of the effort. The below diagram shows how the standard way in sociocracy would tend to organize these efforts.

The SDGs are clustered by area. Each department circle has one of the SDG clusters as their domain which means they “own” that domain and have full authority to act. In the classic — and recommendable — model, each parent circle and child circle is linked by two members who are members of both circle so flow of information is ensured. The General Circle in the middle is formed by two people from each cluster circle.

Each circle has — as ‘child circles’ — more specific circles that focus on more targeted SDGs. The ‘lower’ down in the structure, the more specific the focus. Sociocratic structure defies our traditional perception of a hierarchy with a top — traditionally associated with more power — and a bottom. Looking at it the other way, it’s the circles for each SDGs that have all the power to act towards their targets. The clusters have authority on the overarching topics that the SDG level circles share, and the General Circle only function for connection, synergy and better communication between the efforts in the clusters and overall.

The advantages of a structure like this is that every SDG can be focus of a group that brings specific relevant expertise in that domain. This SDG circle does not have to ask permission from anywhere else in the structure, so expertise and action are domain-specific and local, enhancing efficiency and success.

Another advantage is that each circle is free to form sub-circles as desired if a project or a sub-division of an effort can be given more attention. In that way, the whole effort can grow wherever there is attention and need, like a plant that can grow more and finer roots when it is in an area rich in nutrients. Since it is easy to “grow” child circles (and to fold them when their work is done), this system is highly responsive, adaptive and dynamic — at any moment in time, the structure can support the focus and operations as they are needed in that moment.

The members of these circles can be individuals, organizations or representatives of organizations. In the case of representatives of organizations, it has to be clear that there is no authority from the collective impact organization into the member organization. In a system of consent (see below), however, this is not as much a problem as it would be in majority rule, as explained below.

Topical circles — geographical circles
In the above (topical) structure, one dimension is not captured: geographical circles. Some of the efforts might find synergy on a local level — SDG 1 might click well on a town level and still need independent focus on a regional level. Therefore, creating an additional structure for geographical groups adds an extra layer of connection and cross-pollination. Also, strengthening local and regional communities is both a condition and a welcome side effect of this structure.

The structure is built according to the exact same design principles: two people or groups (represented by a person) connecting a parent and a child circle, and attention growing where it’s need and supported. For example, if the collective impact organization has a lot of support in a town A but not (yet) in town B, then the circles might be covering smaller areas for A and broader areas for B. We grow where we have attention which gives us a realistic structure, not one built on wishful thinking.

With two layers of structure like this, one big advantage is that each individual and each member organization can find its sweet spot — an organization with a wide focus might plug in on a multi-regional level while an individual with a strong commitment to — an expertise in — their own town might plug in on a very specific level. In the same way, if someone’s focus is on one particular SDG and only for one bioregion, each of these desires can be met.

How to connect the two layers
There are different ways of connecting these two organizational arrangements. One is to keep them fairly separate structurally but have people, like honeybees, go from one to the other. It might also be required for every member to be a member of both layers.

Another way is to create formal connections. In the standard set of circles, a sociocratic organization will have an advisory board with representatives of stakeholder groups. Now delegates from the geographical layer could be a member of the advisory board of the topical circles — or reverse. That way, the geographical layer could be represented as a stakeholder in the topical structure. (Examples of stakeholder representation on the advisory board level — called Mission Circle there— are shown in the book Many Voices One Song. Shared Power with Sociocracy.)

The best idea is probably to blend many approaches to enhance the connection between both structures.

Success for collective impact
Each structure has to be periodically (constantly or regularly) evaluated, adjusted and optimized for providing the most opportunity for mutually enforcing activities and for continuous communication. As designed here, this can happen very easily within one of the layers and needs special attention to be ensured between the layers.

The ‘consistent way of measuring and collecting data’ are best defined on a broad circle level in the topical structure. It will ‘trickle down’ as a recommendation for each circle working on gathering data.

The General Circle of the topical structure together with its advisory board will serve as the backbone organization. There needs to be enough funding to support attention and accountability among the people filling those roles.

2. Funding

Unless there is a clear funding stream, finding funding will be an ongoing struggle on all levels of this organization. The collective impact organization will depend on funding from a diverse set of funding streams.

Different funding requirements might determine who can apply for funding. There are funding sources for cross-national, national, regional or town levels. In the same way, funding might be for a broad topic or for very specific efforts. That means that each and every circle can contribute in supporting the funding effort as a whole, optimizing the level of resources in the effort as a whole. There is also the issue of convening conversations and conference seeking to reimagine funding itself (philanthropy, government, etc.) so that decision-makers in the funding world understand the nature and value of such cross-boundary networked collaborations and thus prioritize them. See

Structurally, it makes sense to select a ‘funding officer’ on every circle, like every cell has mitochondria as their own power plant. If more attention is needed than one person can provide, the role can be turned into a circle, depending on each circle’s level of commitment and opportunities.

Each collective impact organization can also benefit from Participatory Budgeting so that resources can be allocated intentionally instead of just following power structures.

3. Training

Sociocratic circles make decisions by consent. Different from unanimous decisions (sometimes practiced in consensus decision-making), a consent decision doesn’t require every circle member to agree with a proposal. The only requirement for consent is that there not be an objection. An objection expresses a concern that the aim of the circle might not be achieved when the proposal in question is approved. Different from majority vote, this means that no dissenting voice with good reasons can be ignored. If a proposal harms the aim for some (for example, in one region or on one topic), their concern needs to be listened to and needs to be addressed. Entering a process in the consciousness that any final decision will be made by consent invites listening (as everyone knows that the final decision will have to work for everyone), invites creative thinking and can, if practiced well, invite experimentation as proposals cannot be blocked or voted down without good reason.

In sociocracy, any roles are also filled by consent. That means that if a circle selects their convener or the delegate to the parent circle, as well as the fundraising officer or a facilitator, any person filling this role will need everyone’s consent. This means two things: divisive behavior (that is rewarded in a system of majority vote) is not rewarded but an integrative and inclusive mindset is.

But there is also another important point: intentionality is needed from the circle when filling a role — a volunteer might not be the best for the role, and the well-suited for the role might not volunteer. Instead, the circle selects with intentionality, on the basis of self-defined criteria and by consent — i.e. with no objections — the person who is going to fill a role for a defined time frame. This not only improves performance, it also changes culture to promote responsibility, intentionality and inclusive mindsets. We can only overcome unsustainable practices when we adopt more sustainable mindsets. We can only heal the world when we heal our own groups.

The values, agreements, behaviors, processes and structures associated with sociocracy are significantly different from traditional organizational arrangements — those grounded in hierarchy, those grounded in majoritarianism, and those grounded in familiar forms of consensus, among others. These familiar forms are embedded in our consciousness and our habits of working together. There is a need to learn and adopt new ways when we choose to use sociocracy. There are many ways to approach this. Some groups or organizations may be “early adopters” and dive right in, learning as they go, even as other groups or organizations around them retain older approaches. Some may wish to undergo thorough training before taking the first step. Still others may seek some basics which they apply alongside ongoing training and mutual support activities that help them grow into sociocratic ways over time. It may be possible to establish over-arching sociocratic coordination networks made up of entities that function in diverse ways internally. There are many possible approaches to serve this promising transition. We are all learning as we go. One thing is certain: It is better to start wherever there is energy and then proceed with good attention to how things unfold after that, learning as we go.

Governance can only provide structure in support of the mindset. Structures and processes can be well-defined — and I would say the sociocratic tools for circles have proven to deliver effectiveness and equivalence — but they only work well when people understand them. Explicit training is one of the ways this can be achieved. But training that many people — often volunteers — while working towards ambitious SDGs is asking for a lot. Ideally, we could collectively press a pause button, heal and improve our processes and group dynamics and then focus on the SDGs. And yet, we don’t have the time.

And yet, for everything we do, we need to make sure our effort reflects on a micro level what we are trying to achieve on a macro level. A good example of why good process is highly relevant to the agenda 2030 is gender equality. It is common that men are overrepresented in decision making groups. Men also tend to dominate conversations. How can a group approach gender equality if the group itself doesn’t ensure that women be heard equally? If we don’t want to perpetuate the old biases, then details matter. How we speak, who speaks how long, whose voice is heard. Consent as a decision-making method ensures that no minority concern can be dismissed. Rounds and well-facilitated meetings ensure that all voices can contribute, that the circle moves forward together effectively and with intentionality.

Therefore, training needs to be planned for both in managing expectations to join and in providing funding. My own organization, Sociocracy For All, has created openly accessible video-based training tools to keep costs low. Yet, experience shows, that frontloading time and putting time and effort into group process is not easily agreed upon in forming groups. We are aware that this will remain an ongoing struggle.

Conclusion

Collective impact and sociocracy can be combined and used effectively to work towards achieving the SDG targets. While structural conditions can be created fairly easily, funding and skill-building and awareness around processes will require ongoing attention to make good use of those structures.

I am deeply grateful to Tom Atlee for his in-depth feedback and suggestions to previous versions of this article. Thanks also to John Buck for talking through projects with me.