CORE insights: How collaborative networks support systems change

February 26, 2024

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  • To address deeply entrenched social issues, community-based organizations (CBOs) are evolving their approach to partnering on systems change efforts.
  • These changes are leading to broader collaborative networks of organizations working together to address specific issues.
  • CORE’s work with CBOs, healthcare entities, and systems change efforts offers evidence of a changing landscape of partnerships and highlights how broader networks can support organizational and workforce capacity.

Over the past decade, widespread acknowledgment has emerged about the vital role of systems change efforts in addressing complex, multi-faceted, and deeply entrenched social issues in the United States. Additionally, community-based organizations (CBOs), healthcare entities, and others increasingly recognize that individual organizations cannot solve communities’ most pressing challenges alone. These shifts have prompted changes in how organizations partner on systems change work, giving rise to a growing number of collaborative networks focused on addressing specific issues.

At CORE, our work with various cross-sector partnerships and networks offers a window into how collaborative networks can advance systems change efforts and grow organizational and workforce capacity. It also provides insights into the implications and limitations of these models, including those related to organizational capacity, workforce capacity, and participants.  

Read on for three key takeaways that emphasize collaborative networks’ potential impact on CBOs, the CBO workforce, and program participants.

1. Collaborative networks can increase collective impact

Collaborative networks can improve capacity within CBOs by increasing the ability to take on work, problem-solve, and learn from other organizations, while also providing supportive and trustworthy partners. One example comes from our work on the California Network Project (CANP), where we heard about collaborations between organizations that supported a significant positive impact in areas like community power-building and health equity.

However, before shifting your partnering strategies, it’s important to ensure your organization is ready. CANP participants expressed that building collaborative networks can empower you to do more with existing resources and staff, but this approach doesn’t always come naturally. Organizations must have the capacity to support increased collaboration and be prepared to adapt to this style of partnership.

Insights from CANP

  • By expanding the pool of people mobilizing together, partners can help elevate work to the state level or amplify collective impact.
  • Partnerships can help overcome past systems change challenges or program failures by strengthening the cause and improving the program's chances of success.
  • Collaborative networks aren’t always the right approach. Sometimes it’s more impactful to focus on 1:1 partnerships to drive specific work forward.
  • Commonly cited challenges to partnering in collaborative networks include time, staff capacity, and funding.

2. Collaborative networks can increase workforce capacity across organizations

As staff and teams come together across organizations to share workloads and knowledge, collaborative networks can support your workforce and increase its capacity. One example comes from the Southwest Washington Accountable Community of Health (SWACH) HealthConnect Hub, a care coordination system that relies on local community-based workers (CBWs) connected through a shared care coordination software platform and partnerships with a wide range of local service providers.

Insights from SWACH’s HealthConnect Hub

  • CBWs and staff at partner CBOs regularly connected with their peers from other organizations to garner support and increase their capacity.
  • Shared infrastructure (the HealthConnect Hub) strengthened partners’ ability to take on work, problem-solve, and learn from each other.
  • Partners recognized the value of this network and utilized it to seek knowledge and support from organizations with different specialties. 

3. Collaborative networks can enhance coordination between organizations and increase support to program participants

Several of our partners have shared how collaborative networks can facilitate more coordinated and effective support for the individuals their networks serve. This links directly to our first two takeaways, because collaborative networks can positively impact organizational capacity and workforce capacity, which in turn positions organizations to provide more coordinated care and support to program participants. For example, community health workers and staff at CBOs often leverage their relationships within the community and tap into their networks to identify and learn about other resources.

This is exemplified by the Southern Oregon Peer Workforce Project, a collaboration between CORE, regional behavioral health leaders, and peer support specialists aimed at strengthening the peer workforce.

Insights from the Southern Oregon Peer Workforce Project

  • Participating organizations underscored the importance of strong collaborative partnerships within the region.
  • Collaborative partnerships were seen as crucial to addressing program participant needs by increasing access to services that participating organizations may not be able to provide alone.
  • Peers and supervisors expressed a need to increase awareness of the current array of services and resources available for clients, acknowledging that stronger connections between service providers support referrals and care coordination between organizations that serve the same clients.

In conclusion, as more organizations look to collaborative networks to help address deeply rooted social issues, there are still unanswered questions and much to discover. Our team at CORE is committed to further exploring this topic, and we encourage others to reflect on the opportunities and challenges presented by collaborative efforts, as well as their potential impact on organizational capacity, workforce capacity, and program participants.

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