Commentary: Impact achieved

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You don’t need me to detail the sad state of our educational system.

As an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (a must-read for me) recently noted, “Once the global leader—after World War II the United States had the highest high school graduation rate in the world—the country now ranks 18th among the top 24 industrialized nations, with more than a million secondary students dropping out every year. The heroic efforts of countless teachers, administrators, and nonprofits, together with billions of dollars in charitable contributions, may have led to important improvements in individual schools and classrooms, yet system-wide progress has seemed virtually unobtainable.”

Reading that summary, I was struck by the similarities between the challenges facing public education and those that continue to confront the meat production industry. Both are hugely complex, multi-faceted institutions fraught with as many internecine rivalries as they are blessed with convergent alliances.

In education, it’s teachers vs. administrators, parents vs. teachers, and students vs. administrators. In meat production, it’s producers vs. packers, packers vs. retailers, and sometimes the entire industry vs. government.

In either case, where constituencies should be cooperating, they’re too busy with conflict to recognize their common objectives.

Yet both public schools and the meat industry have serious issues to address, from the scourge of low performance in the former to the withering attacks directed against it with the latter.

What’s the solution? Of course, there’s no single tactic that solves the problems in either case, but a relatively new process is gaining momentum in the social change sector, and I believe it has merit for the larger meat industry, as well.

It’s called “collective impact” and it’s an innovative strategy adopted from the business world, which has embraced the process as a way to deal with the organizational challenges endemic to large, multi-national corporations operating in many different markets.

Here’s how the SSIR authors, Mark Kramer, founder, and John Kania, managing director of FSG consulting group, defined it: “Complex social problems cannot be solved by a single organization or by a simple recipe. [Instead], the conditions defined in a collective impact process put participants on a journey embracing collective vigilance, learning, and action.”

That’s fancyspeak for “stop fighting individual battles and join forces to pursue common goals.”

Kramer and Kania offer several relevant examples of seemingly intransigent problems that previously defied amelioration, but where genuine progress began to emerge when the collective impact process was engaged. Here are two that resonate:

  • Cleaning up a watershed. For years, the Elizabeth River in Virginia (actually, it’s an estuary that comprises part of the Hampton Roads harbor) was heavily polluted by industrial wastes. To craft a solution required the cooperation of several cities, the state DEQ, EPA, the U.S. Navy (whose Norfolk Naval Shipyard sits on the river) and dozens of conservation groups, environmental organizations, businesses, universities and community groups. Together, they laid out a step-by-step plan that has made dramatic improvements in reducing pollution, improving water quality and restoring fish and wildlife populations. The key: A common, overarching goal to clean up the river.
  • Reducing obesity. The city of Somerville, Mass., decided that despite its daunting complexity, childhood obesity was a problem that could be tackled with a collective impact process. By bringing together nutritional experts, researchers, fitness authorities and healthcare specialists, the project reached out to NGOs, schools, businesses, hospitals and universities and implemented a plan that included everything from healthier school meals to community wellness programs to fitness, sports and physical activity programs to low-cost gym memberships—even a comprehensive plan to widen sidewalks and upgrade crosswalks so more kids could walk to school. The results: A statistically significant drop in obesity among the city’s school-age children.

Now, how about the “big three” that industry faces—animal well-being, food safety and environmental impact? As someone who’s covered the industry for over 30 years now, it seems to me that those issues parallel how Kramer and Kania described the struggle to improve the school system, only with different problems and different actors.

When they talk about “the heroic efforts of countless teachers, administrators, and nonprofits,” we could substitute “managers, executives and trade groups,” and the sentence makes perfect sense.

When they lament that despite those efforts, and billions in charitable contributions, “Important improvements [occurred] in individual schools, yet system-wide progress has seemed virtually unobtainable,” we could substitute “billions in investments in housing, humane handling programs and food safety interventions, which resulted in individual companies demonstrating improvements, while industry-wide progress has been tough to accomplish.”

And when they contend that, “Complex problems cannot be solved by a single organization or by a simple recipe,” I’m here to second that emotion—especially as it applies to the challenges industry faces.

In virtually all of the success stories these consultants cited, the common denominator was a problem so enduring, a set of variables so complex and a group of constituents so multi-faceted that it finally created a gravitational pull strong enough to bring everyone to the table for some serious goal-setting.

I’m not sure the meat industry has reached that point, but my hope is that something akin to a collective impact process could gain momentum before it becomes the only option left. □

› To learn more about collective impact, log onto

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Dan Murphy, a veteran food-industry journalist and commentator.

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