Why is local context a critical success factor when engaging the community?

collective impactPerspectives from the field: A conversation about collective impact and collaboration from Australia and Canada

Over the last month, Liz Weaver, Vice President, Tamarack Institute and I have been engaged in an email exchange puzzling out the answers to many wicked questions about collective impact and community change. Below is part III of V, where we discuss how to ensure a community agenda not just a shared agenda. If you would like to view previous posts, please click on the part you would like to view: Part IPart II.

Why is local context a critical success factor in community change efforts?


This is an interesting question as some might believe local context is important simply because every local context is unique. While that may be somewhat true, I believe what makes local context important is the extent to which the ‘community of interest’ have ownership of the solution they are co-designing. Having evaluated many pilot programs there was one feature that jumped out at me. Pilot schemes were often much more successful than when a fuller program was rolled out. I am convinced that one of the reasons for this is that programs or initiatives work when we rely on something new being developed. There is no ‘newness’ about being told that an initiative will be rolled out in a particular location because it was deemed to be a successful approach in another location. In Australia, I have observed some resentment in locations when told that government is tackling a certain problem using a ‘best practice’ model that worked somewhere else.

Local context is more than unique characteristics; it is about local ownership of the process. If the process is being ‘done to’ a community, it will not be welcomed. If it is being done by the community, or being led or actively influenced by a community, the energy is completely different. There is something motivating about trying something new without being certain if it will work or not. Being told something will work because it has elsewhere tends to kill motivation. Indeed, in Australia there is a tendency to try to prove the bureaucrats or professionals wrong about the promised success of some new model. The factor present, when pilots or initiatives work, is the excitement and curiosity in trying something new or different. This is something which is very hard to replicate or roll out. When pilots succeed, the very factor that led to its success is denied in other areas.

Beyond this, local context is important because it is about respect; identifying local strengths to build upon; and engaging the community as an asset to understand and work with rather than as something broken needing to be fixed.

So, here are my thoughts about it. What have you found to be important about local context?

Over to you Liz!


I agree with you Max. Local context is more than unique characteristics, but it is also important to understand and leverage those ‘unique, local characteristics.’ Among the local characteristics to pay attention to include the demographic make up of the community; the degree and engagement of community leadership in the initiative; the history of collaboration in the community; the willingness and ability of key players to become engaged; the amount of financial and human resources it will take to move an issue forward; the community’s knowledge, commitment and passion around the issue being tackled; and, the initial convening leadership. There are likely many more characteristics but these are the ones that I have seen to be pivotal.

These local characteristics factor into key topic areas: leadership commitment and capacity; resources; issue passion, commitment and data knowledge; and community readiness. It is the mix of these ingredients that create a base for communities to be able to tackle complex problems. Many others have written about community readiness including Rich Harwood and Jay Connor. By understanding the readiness of the community to move forward, you can begin to work on the elements of what it will take to get to community change and impact.

That is where the co-design and co-development elements that you have highlighted Max are critically important. That is also where philanthropy may get it wrong. True community change occurs when the community is passionate about the issue and there is a sense of urgency to get things done. Having issues imposed by external, if well intentioned, forces does make it more challenging to get things done because it takes longer to build buy in. I experienced this directly when a funder offered substantial funding to my organization to build a community leadership program. While the idea was great, we needed to develop the leadership program to suit our local context and build broad-based leadership support around this idea. It took us two years of work to get from idea to launch and often felt like we were pushing against a boulder.

When we finally got there, the program was a success, but it was because we put in the time, built the relationships and did not just take something off the shelf. This experience, for me, emphasized the critical importance of connecting into our local context.

Do you agree with their perspectives? Do you have other questions they should consider? What are the challenges you are facing as you engage in collective impact? We invite you to add your comments and join the conversation here.

Click here to view the publication.

To view subsequent discussions, click on the discussion below:

Part IV

Part V

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