December 2023

10 learnings from running India’s first formally structured Collective Impact Initiative

By Akshay Soni, Executive Director, Saamuhika Shakti

As 2023 draws to a close, we also wrap up the first phase of Saamuhika Shakti, a Collective Impact initiative in Bengaluru that has been working since 2020 to enable informal waste pickers and their families to have greater agency to lead secure and dignified lives.

Running Saamuhika Shakti these past four years has been uniquely challenging and extremely satisfying in equal measure for us and our partners, each already established in their spheres of work who joined forces to design interventions that holistically address many of the systemic challenges informal waste pickers face that continue to keep them in intergenerational poverty loops. 

From better access to water, sanitation, education, health, and housing, to awareness of social security schemes, training for alternative livelihoods, collectivisation, waste management jobs, and even attempting to change people’s perceptions of waste-picking — Saamuhika Shakti aimed to lay a foundation that will allow waste pickers to have greater access to opportunities that were as yet not available to them.  

Undertaking a holistic intervention required us to take a fresh approach, one where the different actors would be incentivised to collaborate and find ways to co-create a better future for the informal waste pickers. 

Saamuhika Shakti’s  Collective Impact collaboration framework, the country's first initiative of this nature, allows actors to come together in a structured manner  to achieve social change, with gender and equitable access to outcomes by all being a foundational guiding principle. 

For this last newsletter of Phase 1, we present to you our learnings that encapsulate things we have done well and could have done better while pioneering this effort in India. 

  1. Leveraging the Benefits of Collective Impact

Do non-profits work together? Can they work together, effectively? 

H&M Foundation, which initiated and funds Saamuhika Shakti, decided to focus their funds on setting up a rigorously structured method — Collective Impact —that will not only incentivise different non-profits to work together but also demand of them a high level of collaboration to produce holistic, systemic solutions. 

While such funders are still a small and evolving part of the philanthropic capital available globally, they focus on how deep a solution is, rather than how large a population one reaches. This approach brings with it multiple benefits to a program and its participants. Saamuhika Shakti has utilised these advantages to their full potential over the past four years. 

  1. Go to the community, talk to the community, center the community

One of the key things that Collective Impact often gets wrong is not meaningfully engaging those in the community most affected by the issues the program is seeking to solve. 

To solve that, in Phase 1, the objectives of Saamuhika Shakti were codified following an ethnographic survey which entailed a survey and observation of waste pickers while they did their day-to-day work to identify the challenges they faced and critical issues they wanted to overcome. This approach was necessary as Saamuhika Shakti did not have any ground presence or trust built with the waste pickers before the project’s inception. 

Halfway through the first phase — and into Phase 2 — we doubled down on our efforts to design programs from the ground up. Monthly community meetings called Namma Jagali facilitated by our partner Hasiru Dala were organised. Here, the community sits together to list their burning needs — most often around access to water, toilets, education, and housing. This way, we ensured we heard from the community firsthand regarding issues they were keen to solve, rather than imposing on them interventions that we thought might help them.  

  1. Prepare for the backbone’s role to diminish

An independent backbone is essential in the initial stages of a Collective Impact project to ensure every partner is treated equally, to build a solid foundation of trust, to drive collaboration, and to put in place conflict-resolution mechanisms. Once partners are comfortable handling all four of these aspects of working in a collective, the backbone’s role moves into being a facilitator/evaluator/auditor. 

We believe that in a healthy collective, the backbone should work overtime initially so that partners learn to leverage each other’s strengths and work together seamlessly, but over time, the importance of a backbone should diminish till we can do away with the backbone itself. 

  1. Communicate well, and regularly

For a collective to have a single voice, we needed to set the foundation for consistent communication at the outset. Among the practices we followed were regular working group meetings, communications guidelines for all partners to set our common language and messages, storytelling workshops. 

We also onboarded a documentary photographer to capture our work in order to communicate our stories more effectively via the visual medium. A key aspect  to all of this is of course the consent of the community to capture them and their lives. We drew up an audio-video consent form that we shared with the waste pickers and only took/used their photos/videos with their explicit approval and signature. They also had the option to deny approval post consent, with the assurance that all the media would be pulled back wherever possible. Prior to the audio-visual documentation,  a “why photograph” session was held with the waste picker community to answer questions about the need to take photos and videos to communicate about the Saamuhika Shakti project. 

  1. Gender at heart

Saamuhika Shakti partners are committed to ensuring that women and girls have equitable access to all of the outcomes of our initiative. What partners do to ensure their programs reach women and girls is one of the measures of their performance. For this, partners set for themselves ambitious goals that have resulted in qualitative impact. 

Our ground teams have reported an increase in women’s agency from being able to negotiate with their families to step out of their houses to participate in skill training, start new businesses, and build their savings. Further, work on building awareness among girls and women about their rights, their bodies and health, domestic violence, and breaking stereotypes have helped them navigate complex issues at home, in their community, and gradually, in the larger society too.  

  1. Choose an evaluation agency upfront, get them to contribute to the design

One of the things Saamuhika Shakti did not do in the beginning was choose an evaluation agency upfront and have them contribute to the design of the program. Doing so would have helped us design our interventions after conducting a few trials on the ground. For instance, we could have run pilot programs in some communities while keeping other communities where no pilots were run as our control group and then studied if the pilot was indeed creating some impact.  Not doing so meant partners brought in their interventions based on inputs from the community, but had to alter programs or even drop them completely over the course of the project. 

When H&M Foundation set up its second Collective Impact initiative, in Bangladesh, they course corrected the error and brought on an evaluation agency before onboarding partners, and this has helped them design solutions for the target community more holistically. 

  1. Have a backbone in place, at the beginning

A big learning for Saamuhika Shakti is that partners were brought on board before the backbone. This meant the partners knew more than the backbone did about the work that had to be done or why certain decisions were made. 

Given the crucial role the independent backbone organization plays in a Collective Impact project, it must be onboarded before other partners so that it has sufficient time to deeply understand the issues at hand, the community in focus, and the project landscape, and then develop the ability to steer all partners in the same direction and enable collaboration. 

  1. Build collaboration early on

One cannot expect different non-profits, each established in their areas and with their own working styles, to collaborate on project goals from Day 1, especially in an environment (in India), where funders’ focus on attribution (while well meaning) actively disincentivizes collaboration. 

Seamless collaboration at Saamuhika Shakti took nearly the whole of the first phase (around 4 years) to evolve, and this was because of the assumption that merely asking partners to collaborate was enough for it to happen. To overcome this challenge, the backbone had to work on-the-double to organise multiple team building and learning exercises for all partners, right from community resource personnel to mid-managers and senior leaders independently as well as together.

Such an organic evolution is difficult. To break out of this mold, we now recognize that collaboration must be built into the design of the project.  For Phase 2, partners got together in a room to talk about how they would work with others in the collective. Partners are also required to co-create joint key performance indicators that hold all of them equally accountable for working together. 

  1. Identify pathways to hardcode accountability for sustainability 

All partners were working with a new, yet untested methodology and most of them had not worked to solve the challenges unique to the informal waste-picking community. It was, therefore, crucial to ensure partners not only designed their interventions to create a sustained impact on the community but also that each of their interventions worked well with other partners’ work. 

This is a risk in the collective impact method: the chance that every partner believes the other is responsible for the sustainability of interventions. In the last year of Phase 1, and in preparation for Phase 2, we had to hardcode equal accountability for sustainability into the project’s design. 

  1. Build trust. Then nurture it 

A common thread running through all the learnings above is trust. Collaboration, conflict resolution, accountability, sustainability — none of this is possible without deep, deep trust. 

Trust between the partners and the backbone, between the partners and the funder, and above all, among the partners themselves. That kind of trust can only be nurtured with transparency, consistent feedback, and persistent commitment to a set of agreed-upon principles that are focused on equality and equity. 

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