Collective Impact, explained

“Large-scale social change requires broad cross-sector coordination, yet the social sector remains focused on the isolated intervention of individual organizations.” John Kania & Mark Kramer

When we’re thinking about building enterprises that tackle some of the world’s greatest challenges, it can and should be overwhelming. These problems are complex, entrenched, and long-lasting, otherwise someone would have solved them already.

And yet, despite widespread knowledge of the complexity of these problems, many of us—including funders, social enterprises, governments and non-profits—continue to seek solutions in individual programs or organizations. It took much more than a single or even a few organizations to create these problems, and it’s going to take more to solve them.

Scaling up single, albeit innovative, programs and replicating them won’t be enough. Neither will short-term public-private partnerships or collaborations. What we need is something more powerful, adaptive, and sustained.

Collective Impact is a concept that began spreading with an article by John Kania and Mark Kramer in the Winter 2011 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. David Bornstein covered the topic shortly after in several New York Times articles. It’s a method through which a group of key players from different sectors commit to a common agenda in order to solve a specific social problem. But it’s no ordinary collaboration.

Collective Impact initiatives are long-term commitments marked by:

  1. A common agenda
  2. A shared measurement system
  3. Mutually reinforcing activities
  4. Ongoing communication
  5. An independent backbone organization

Here’s a video by FSG that explains the movement:

In short, it’s a method by which the whole can become more than the sum of its parts. Best practices of Collective Impact include:

  • Strive, an initiative that has brought together 300 education-related organizations in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky region to develop common goals, evidence-based strategies, and shared metrics for regional impact.
  • The 100,000 Homes Campaign, which coordinates efforts to place the chronically homeless in permanent supportive housing.
  • Shape Up Somerville, a community-wide effort to reduce weight gain among children in Somerville, MA.
  • The Elizabeth River Project, a cross-sector initiative to restore the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth, VA.
  • The Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions, which connects 16 conservation organizations in the U.S. and Canada to build a sustainable seafood industry.

Despite the clear benefits of strengthening the efficiency, knowledge, and effectiveness of an entire system that affects complex social issues—including the possibility of building viable and lasting solutions—the task remains daunting for some. In response to a reader who asked how to get top-level leaders to agree to volunteer time and resources, Bornstein wrote simply, “By getting the right people together.”

Another reader cited problems with measurement systems—notably their apparent objectivity despite value judgments involved in data inclusion and analysis. It is also worth noting that some things are not readily quantifiable. FSG, the nonprofit consulting firm that helps communities develop collective impact efforts (and where Kania and Kramer work), suggests Shared, Comparative Performance, and Adaptive Learning measurement systems in its whitepaper, Breakthroughs in Shared Measurement. All of these measurement systems use online databases for managing and sharing results, with Shared Measurement Systems simply using the same database, Comparative Performance using the same metrics, and Adaptive Learning being an ongoing process of sharing and learning from cross-sector results.

Its poster child for Adaptive Learning is Strive, which has adopted the Six Sigma process for data management. Six Sigma has received criticism, however, for being too data driven. Perhaps a more balanced approach would include the techniques employed throughout the Global Reporting Initiative—in which organizations report both quantitative and qualitative results along indicators that are relevant to their goals.

Whatever the issues related to measurement are, aligning efforts and tracking performance toward common goals is necessary for positive change. In their report Breakthroughs in Shared Measurement, FSG wrote, “We believe that shared measurement systems can help move the sector beyond the fragmented and disconnected efforts of more than a million nonprofits and tens of thousands of funders by creating a new degree of coordination and learning that can magnify the impact of funders and grantees alike.”

Shared measurement systems allow organizations to compare results along common indicators, identify regional trends, coordinate efforts, learn from one another, and gradually improve over time. As an added bonus, they increase accountability and incentivize greater impact for every organization involved.

Another key to success will be funding and, in some cases, starting organizations that can serve as the independent facilitators and data gatherers of these processes. As Bornstein put it, “few funders invest in the connective tissue that is necessary to foster meaningful collaborations,” but that connective tissue is exactly what we need to instigate lasting change.

Further reading:

“Collective Impact” by John Kania and Mark Kramer, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2011

Breakthroughs in Shared Measurement by FSG

“The Power of Partnerships” by David Bornstein, New York Times, 10 March 2011

“Collective Impact: A Compelling Cause and Compact for Growth” by Diana Aviv, Independent Sector, 7 September 2011

“Leadership for Collective Impact” by United Front, 15 September 2011