As nonprofits increasingly take on thorny problems that call for large-scale social change (for example, global warming, economic development or education), some are turning to a relatively new approach known as “collective impact.” Proponents say such cross-sector coordination is more likely to achieve change than isolated interventions by individual groups.
Collective impact in a nutshell
Collective impact is more than just collaboration. Its originators describe the phrase as the commitment of a group of important players from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem in a structured way. That includes the not-for-profits themselves, government, businesses, citizens and constituent communities.
For example, in 2016, the Hampton Roads Community Foundation in Southeast Virginia initiated a regionwide process to improve the results in early care and education programs. It tapped almost 100 stakeholders in planning a program designed to unite previously disparate programs and participants to achieve greater impact. The Minus 9 to 5 initiative has been able to align actions across five cities in Virginia in only two years.
In the Stanford Social Innovation Review article that introduced the concept, the authors explicitly contrasted collective impact with collaboration. Unlike most collaborations, they explained, collective impact initiatives involve a centralized infrastructure, dedicated staff and structured process
5 critical conditions
Adherents of collective impact typically cite five prerequisites that together produce the alignment necessary for successful initiatives:
Common agenda. All participants in the initiative must have a shared vision for change, based on a common understanding of the problem and their goals and a joint approach to solving it through agreed upon actions. While everyone doesn’t need to agree on every facet of the problem, differences among the participants’ definitions of the problem —and their goals — must be resolved to preempt splintered efforts. A three step process for developing a common agenda includes: engaging with the participants, defining the problem and developing a plan of action.
Shared measurement systems. Without agreement on how success will be measured and reported, conformity on a common agenda will have little value. Each of the participants must take the same approach to data collection and metrics to ensure the continued alignment of efforts, foster accountability and facilitate the kind of information sharing that can make it easier to meet goals. There are three phases to developing a shared measurement system: designing, developing and deploying.
Mutually reinforcing activities. Although collective impact depends on stakeholders working together, that doesn’t mean they all must do the same thing. Rather, each participant should be encouraged to pursue the activities at which it excels, in a way that both supports and coordinates with its fellow participants’ activities. To succeed as an initiative, each participant must engage in activities that fit into an overarching plan.
Continuous communication. Perhaps the biggest challenge to collective impact is the need for trust among stakeholders so they know that their interests are equally valued. Trust generally develops over time and across interactions. So, the most effective initiatives meet regularly, engaging in structured open communication to build trust, assure mutual objectives, and create common motivation. Continuous communication includes reporting progress and impact. As months and years progress, stakeholders who work together to share information and solve problems can recognize and appreciate their individual roles and their common motivation.
Backbone support organizations. As mentioned above, collective impact requires a separate organization with its own infrastructure, which will provide the “backbone” for the project. The backbone entity needs its own dedicated staff to plan, manage and support the initiative, as well as building public will, advancing policy and mobilizing resources. Think about it: Will any of the participants alone have the extra resources needed to handle all the logistical and administrative details? Probably not.
Collective impact projects can reach levels of success that simply aren’t possible for individual organizations or even joint ventures. But the process is complicated and time-consuming. The results may prove worth it, but you need to know what you’re getting into before signing on to such an initiative.
Sidebar: Nontraditional approach demands nontraditional reviews
These days, evaluation frequently focuses on a project’s outcomes.
For example, how many graduates of an adult literacy program can now read at a sixth-grade level? Collective impact programs, however, generally are too complicated and unpredictable for such an approach to provide an accurate measure of progress and success.
Instead, you need to look at a collective impact initiative more holistically, and consider all parts of the “puzzle.” To best assess progress in bringing about the desired change, consider — among other things — the effectiveness of the initiative’s changemaking process, including its structure and operations. You’ll also need to review ways influencers of the targeted issues are changing and the degree of progress toward the ultimate goals.
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