Collective Impact

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“Collective impact” describes an intentional way of working together and sharing information for the purpose of solving a complex problem. Proponents of collective impact believe that the approach is more likely to solve complex problems than if a single nonprofit were to approach the same problem(s) on its own. While collective impact seems very similar to plain old “collaboration,” there are certain characteristics that distinguish collective impact initiatives - and make them successful.

The term “collective impact” caught attention in an article published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2011. The authors (all consultants with the firm FSG) made a powerful observation that,

“The complex nature of most social problems belies the idea that any single program or organization, however well managed and funded, can singlehandedly create lasting large scale change.”

- Fay Hanleybrown, John Kania, & Mark Kramer

What is the "Collective Impact" Framework?

In a collective impact initiative the participants are often a combination of individuals, organizations, grantmakers, and even representatives from the business community and government. According to Hanleybrown, Kania, and Kramer, the following characteristics are present in a collective impact initiative (but some other important characteristics, such as the inclusion of community voice, as noted in this article, are critical too):

  • The participants share a vision of change and a commitment to solve a problem by coordinating their work; they agree on shared goals.
  • Participants also agree to measure or monitor many of the same things, so that they can learn across the initiative, and hold each other accountable.
  • To be most effective, the activities of all the participants are coordinated by a “backbone,” which could be a single organization, a single person, or a steering committee that represents all the participants. The backbone is often most responsible for "building public will" and making sure that the initiative stays focused and moves forward. The backbone also focuses on building a culture that encourages information sharing and candor, and doesn’t shirk from resolving conflicts so that trusted relationships emerge among the participants. Typically the backbone plays an administrative role such as convening meetings, coordinating data collection, connecting participants with each other, and facilitating the activities of the initiative, and the relationships, so that working together the participants can get past barriers, and are efficient and productive. The backbone may also facilitate or attract financial resources to the collective impact initiative.
  • Activities of the initiative are described as "mutually reinforcing" because they are designed to remind all participants that they depend on each other to move the initiative forward. Mutually reinforcing activites ensure that the activities of the participants are aligned; directed towards shared measurement; and are making progress towards common goal(s).
  • Finally, a successful collective impact initiative depends on resources to keep it going, and consistent and open communication between all the participants, so that everyone is informed and stays motivated over time.

(Source: Stanford Social Innovation Review):

key elements of CI graphic


How is collective impact different from collaboration?

While a collaboration often implies only a two-way street, collective impact has been described as “building on the muscle of collaboration” to create an entire community that is intentional about its approach to solving a problem or multiple problems – together. For example, several nonprofits may come together in a community to tackle a complex problem such as maternal-child health. While each nonprofit will undoubtedly have its own strategic plan, or strategic initiatives, a collective impact approach will build on those strategic plans, moving the initiative forward using a community-wide stategic lens. Ideally, the initiative will be inclusive of voices representing the community, and tackle policy changes in order to make lasting, "systems change." See this article, "10 Places Where Collective Impact Gets it Wrong" that is critical of the definitions used by Hanleybrown, Kania & Kramer and points out that the most effective approaches are those that include gathering an adequate understanding of the root causes of issues and involve the affected community in creating solutions.

Practice Pointers

  • Those who advocate for a collective impact approach point out that a collaboration may be better positioned than a single organization to take deliberate risks that can result in innovative solutions.
  • For a collective impact approach to succeed, the participants need to be rigorous about the culture: By intentionally creating a culture of trust, information is shared more readily and swiftly by and between participants. Establishing that culture of trust is even more important when the participants in a collective impact initiative are diverse, and have different individual cultures.
  • Authenticity is also key: include the community!
  • Use collective knowledge to leap forward. As one participant in the collective initiative is successful, share that knowledge across the initiative, moving ideas, actions, and progress towards the common goal.
  • To create "buy-in" to common agendas/goals, sometimes it's useful to work out the language and ask all participants to commit to the common agenda by signing a document that also describes what each participant is committing to the initiative (whether resources, data, certain experiences etc.).
  • Funders may be interested in supporting only one aspect of the initiative: that may create tension, even discomfort among the participants since some may end up with more resources than others as a result. However, with an eye on the reaching a common goal, even such discomfort can be tolerated.
  • Successful initiatives have an organization or person(s) serving as the “backbone,” that is trusted by the community/participants, and does not advocate for its own agenda but is dedicated to advancing the common agenda by facilitating common activities, such as shared measurement, evaluation, and even fundraising.
  • Evaluating collective impact initiatives is most effective when it is flexible and takes the stage/maturity of the collective impact into consideration. See the resources assembled along with this guide to evaluating collective impact (FSG)


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