Collective impact: a primer

Collective impact is an increasingly common term among funders and organizations who focus on complex issues that involve multiple stakeholders.

This primer gives an overview of the term so that you can contribute to the conversation if it comes up, or perhaps can see it as an approach that may be effective for your organization and community.

A socially innovative approach

Collective Impact is the commitment of a group of actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem, using a structured form of collaboration. Wikipedia

Collective impact is an approach that:

  • brings together stakeholders who have roles in a complex social or environmental issue,
  • in order to build a common vision for a desired future, and
  • uncover each stakeholder’s greatest opportunities to contribute to that future, and
  • who agree to focus their resources on those interventions with greatest opportunity for impact, and
  • who, as a group, continuously communicate and measure along their path towards the common vision.

Collective impact process as a cycle

But it’s more than just an approach.

While collective impact is a socially innovative approach, its success relies on people.

Relationships are fundamental. A collective impact process, when broken down into its smallest pieces, involves people, doing things, over time. Without respectful relationships between individual stakeholders, things won’t get done, and the whole approach is at risk.

Who should take a collective impact approach?

People who are invested in achieving a solution to a complex problem. People who enjoy working collaboratively with other stakeholders who are also invested in a solution. People who will persevere when things get murky.

Ideally you already work collaboratively and have good relationships with other stakeholders. The rest of the answers—like a clear vision and a strong theory of how to get there and who will do what—come as part of the process.

Who leads?

While an individual stakeholder may initiate conversations that lead towards a collective impact approach, successful collective impact initiatives rely on a neutral convenor, with a specific set of skills, to mediate, facilitate, navigate power dynamics, and ensure consistent communication, measurement, and recalibration.

This crucial support role must be resourced above an beyond stakeholders. Therefore funders also play an important role in collective impact.

The expectation that collaboration can occur without a supporting infrastructure is one of the most frequent reasons why it fails. – John Kania & Mark Kramer in Stanford Social Innovation Review 

In future posts, I’ll answer questions like:

  • How are collective impact initiatives and relationships governed?
  • Where are the resistance points to good collaboration?
  • How is collective impact similar to or different than strategic planning, impact measurement, stakeholder mapping, developmental evaluation, theories of change, basic collaboration, etc?
  • I want to try this in my community. How do I get the process started?

What other questions about collective impact do you have?