Posted Wednesday, May 14, 2014 at 8:13 pm

I am often asked – should we adopt a collective impact approach in our work? While we have seen that the collective impact approach can be critical to achieving significant large-scale change, it is not always the right approach. Although every situation is context specific, the four questions below can help you determine if collective impact makes sense for your work.

Does addressing this issue at scale require …

  • The commitment of a core group of partners to making a measurable impact on a specific social or environmental problem at a population level? Because collective impact requires bringing together key stakeholders to use data to track progress, the issue they address must be specific. For example, improving outcomes for childhood asthma is ideal for collective impact, while improving the general well-being for children may end up being too broad.
  • The involvement of nonprofits, philanthropy, the public sector, and the private sector? By definition, collective impact brings together stakeholders from across sectors. For example, this approach makes sense for lowering rates of childhood asthma because doing so requires the involvement of the private sector (e.g., pharmacies), health providers, community and faith based organizations, school districts, philanthropy, and public agencies. However, if a collaborative were solely focused on an issue like spreading a new medical technology for treating asthma across a city, or increasing funding for childhood asthma, a cross-sector CI approach would not be required.
  • Systems change, and greater alignment and connection between many organizations? Collective impact initiatives bring together many organizations in a system—often dozens, if not hundreds. In Dallas, for example, more than 70 organizations participate in the initiative at different levels of engagement, from a steering committee to working groups to a data committee. All of these are necessary to achieve the systems change that will lead to large-scale, sustainable progress in reducing rates of childhood asthma. If only a subset of these organizations were engaged in the collaborative, the effort would not have the scale nor represent the broad set of activities required to achieve behavior and systems change.
  • Scaling effective work across organizations as well as identifying new innovative solutions? Collective impact brings stakeholders together that do not traditionally work together, and enables new adaptive solutions to emerge. For example, collective impact is ideal for identifying new ways of addressing childhood asthma, but it may not be the right approach if a group’s sole focus is to spread a new health curriculum across city schools.

Even when an issue is well-suited for the collective impact approach, stakeholders must ensure that three essential pre-conditions for collective impact are in place before they dive head first into an initiative: 1) an influential champion, 2) adequate financial resources, and 3) a sense of urgency to address the challenge in new, collaborative ways. The 2012 article “Channeling Change: Making Collective Impact Work,” elaborates on these essential preconditions.

After reading the blog, if you are thinking about convening people to discuss using a collective impact approach, check out the Getting Started page. And, if you are considering another form of collaboration, you may find the resources on this sheet valuable in moving forward.

What advice do you have for others in determining if collective impact is a promising approach for their work? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

1 Comment

Chris Thompson

funder of initiatives

Thanks Jen, this is very helpful. I'll go back one more step and suggest that stakeholders should first ask whether there are non-profits with the skill/history/capability of producing outstanding outcomes -- what Mario Morino in Leap of Reason called high performers. The best way to get to collective impact is to start with high performers. Even a great collaboration among average performers can only produce average results. Today a funder I was talking to realized it's way premature to even consider a collective impact approach because the organizations he was considering inviting to the table aren't proven commodities. Here's my overly simplistic short-hand: 1. Skill -- Are there sufficient number of stakeholders in the space with the demonstrated ability to produce outcomes that give one confidence that achieving something great (collective impact) is possible. 2. Will -- Is there sufficient trust and motivation among the stakeholders to go through the pain and agony of collaboration; what you describe much better above as "commitment." 3. The Bill -- As you emphasize, the act of organizing for collective impact does take resources. And everyone involved must be willing to see dollars flow to that act rather than the "doing."

Submitted by Chris Thompson on Thu, 2014-05-29 21:40