Opinion
Civil Society

How to successfully orchestrate collective action

Achieving equitable outcomes requires collective action and shared leadership. Image: Unsplash/Wylly Suhendra

Khushboo Awasthi Kumari
Evangelist, Designer, Punjab Education Collective
Tasso Azevedo
Founder and General Coordinator, MapBiomas
Danya Pastuszek
Co-Chief Executive Officer, Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement
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  • Societal challenges such as climate change, quality education and inequities affect billions of lives across the world.
  • No single entity – be it government, NGO or community group – can solve them alone, so collective action is key.
  • Here's how change-makers can avoid pitfalls of power and design collective action initiatives to tackle societal challenges.

Societal challenges like climate change, quality education and inequities, among others, loom large in today’s world, affecting billions of lives. These issues are complex, interconnected and multifaceted spanning across communities, regions, and even continents.

The sheer scale of these challenges is daunting, and no single entity – whether the government, a non-governmental organization (NGO) or a community group – can hope to solve them alone. Achieving equitable outcomes – and not just for some, but for all – will require collective action and shared leadership.

We wrote this piece after a transformative shared experience, as a resource for those who think about creating or participating in spaces that yield collective action.

Leadership for systems change and collective action

We recently had a unique opportunity to be in a week-long course on ‘Leadership for Systems Change’ at the Harvard Kennedy School with 34 other wonderful social change leaders from the Schwab Foundation for Social Innovation community.

The discussions were rich and thought-provoking, covering concepts of power, authority and leadership, innovation, scaling, systems change, diagnosing problems before jumping to solutions, and various roles – agitator, innovator, orchestrator – one ought to take to become an effective change-maker.

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It's evident that orchestrating collective action is needed to address various interconnected issues systemically and effectively. But what’s also evident is that the orchestration of collective action is complex, non-linear, and time-consuming.

So, one day we asked ourselves: how might we – as orchestrators of collective action and as people with the best of intentions – avoid pitfalls of power and design collective action initiatives to address sticky societal challenges? Here are our reflections.

Lesson 1: Balance collective vision with individual innovation

Collectives operate around a shared vision, which gets created by spending a lot of time in the initial stages. The vision translates into a collective strategy and a common set of principles and guidelines for implementation; at times, if too detailed, can leave little room for experimentation or deviation at later stages. Individual creativity and innovation often gets compromised at the risk of being considered a distraction.

In ShikshaLokam’s work with Shikshāgraha – the 100 districts collective in India aiming for education equity – the design strategy recommends using a unified approach of micro-improvements such that the collective can have a shared measurement system of success, but encourages individual partners to include their own innovation and unique solutions in the programme design for the challenge identified locally.

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For instance, if district X is facing issues of girls’ attendance as well as students’ reading fluency, one partner can design micro-improvement projects on parental sensitization in the community for encouraging girls to attend schools, and the other will design micro-improvement projects on creating vibrant reading spaces inside the school premises.

The shared Shikshāgraha dashboard captures the total number of micro-improvements, recorded in the schools of district X, to show whether the collective is moving towards its common vision and the shared goal of improving the learning environment for 40 million kids across 200,000 schools.

Thus, by making agency and decentralized action as the guiding principles of design, one can strike a balance between collective vision and individual innovation. The diversity of solutions also catalyses communities of practice to emerge as cross-learning spaces. Learning and sharing, thus becomes a distinct characteristic of such collective action initiatives.

Lesson 2: Ensure transparent governance, accountability and decision-making

As collectives grow, three behaviours often emerge. First, centralized decision-making, without authentic engagement of the people with lived experience of the systems we aim to shift. Often introduced to use the collective’s resources efficiently, centralized decision-making can become habitual.

Second, people may stop asking questions or voicing divergent points of view, often in the interest of avoiding conflict or slowing the group down. Third, participants in the collective may stop sharing in the work, with most of the work falling to conveners, particularly well-resourced participants, or participants with other types of power.

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Tamarack Institute for Community Engagement supports more than 400 place-based partnerships across Turtle Island. Many of these collaboratives begin by co-creating community agreements using tools like the Collaboration Spectrum.

These agreements are community-specific but generally consider questions like: what will we do to support all partners to feel seen, heard, and essential? How will we make decisions? How will we name and address conflict? How will we celebrate progress, learning and impact? How will we share work in a way that honours participants’ interests and capacities?

We’ve learned from these communities and others that for collective action initiatives to succeed, we must prioritize transparency and accountability at every level. We should establish mechanisms for how we learn together, and for the types of storytelling and evaluation that supports partners to track progress, celebrate together, and hold each other and the group accountable to commitments and the audacious, shared goals.

Lesson 3: Restore agency and embracing diversity

Orchestrators enjoy a high degree of trust and respect of the ecosystem. If not paid attention to, often we end up believing that we know all the answers.

In MapBiomas, a collaborative network, each organization brings diverse expertise. It could be knowledge of a region or one specific theme like mangroves or a crop type or land use. Together, they collaborate on the technology platform to co-create maps of different crops or different regions by using the common space and the tools that MapBiomas has on Google Earth engine.

Individually, these maps do not have much meaning, but once you put all the maps together over a landmass, then we see a valuable product which could not have been done with such quality by any organization alone.

Also, in this case, everyone in this network must trust that the other one is doing their part with the same quality and in agreed-upon timelines. Also, by choice, MapBiomas does not do advocacy. By keeping this rich data open, MapBiomas enables other organizations to generate insights and reports for larger advocacy; and thus, helps them become agents of systemic transformation.

Thus, when we design for agency and participation, involve partners in decision-making processes, respect their knowledge and expertise, and co-create, we enable communities to take ownership of initiatives. And together, we can always imagine doing more than what any of us is able to do alone.

For effective orchestration, we need to proactively create platforms for dialogue, collaboration and consensus-building, where stakeholders from different backgrounds and diverse perspectives can come together for shared meaning-making and co-creating solutions.

This comes at an initial cost of time. Discussions become long and we often find ourselves thinking: are we compromising on speed? As we have noted elsewhere, achieving audacious goals in curious, humble, and collaborative ways is multigenerational work.

The way forward for collective action

At Harvard, we were introduced to the notion, “Power derives from controlling access to resources others value.”

For collectives, the power and impact comes from sharing these valued resources among the actors. Thus, only by embracing principles of empowerment, inclusion, accountability, and innovation, NGOs and governments can orchestrate effective collective action.

This also enables us to build stronger, more resilient communities capable of addressing complex challenges like education equity, even in our absence in the future.

The authors belong to different organizations and networks, which have been recognised by the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship as the Collective Social Innovation Awardees 2023.

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