Advancing the Practice of Collective Impact

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We appreciate Tom Wolff’s critique of collective impact and the insights he shares in his recent essay. Wolff’s years of experience in the field, and the perspectives he offers, are a valuable contribution to the arena of collective, collaborative change. We’re grateful that he’s agreed to re-post his essay alongside our response in order to create what we hope will be a productive conversation.

Since writing the original article on collective impact in 2011, we and others have written about many of the dimensions that Wolff articulates in his published editorial in the Global Journal of Community Psychology Practice, a peer-reviewed professional journal. In particular, we agree with Wolff’s aspirations for how collective impact can lead to better results, particularly for those whom collaborative efforts seek to serve. We share his eloquently expressed hope for “improved applications of Collective Impact” to emerge:”

  • “where those most affected by the issues lead the effort and share the decision making and the power;
  • where the collaborative action is based on an understanding of the social, political, and social justice context in which the issues of the community are embedded, and addresses these issues head on; and
  • where the Collective Impact work is more thoroughly based on the existing fields of coalition building and community development, learning from the acquired knowledge, experience, and available tools.”

As Wolff’s critique was published close to the five-year anniversary of our original article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR), we want to take the opportunity here to share some reflections on how our thinking has evolved, based on conversations with other practitioners and our own work supporting collective impact efforts.

It is difficult to know exactly why the article struck such a resonant chord. Some have told us that the term “collective impact” and the five conditions gave them a way to frame the collaborative efforts they’d been doing for decades and enabled them to find and learn from colleagues doing similar work. For others who were newer to comprehensive community change, the construct provided an accessible foundation that allowed them to get started in collaborating in new, cross-sector ways.

As documented by this research from Columbia University’s Teachers College, the initial article has helped elevate the importance of collaborative cross sector activity to address social problems. Unfortunately, some people have interpreted the five conditions of collective impact as a recipe or formula that is sufficient to engage in the deep and nuanced work of collaborative change. As we and many others have written since the initial article was published, while the five conditions are important foundational elements of collaborative change, they do not, in and of themselves, provide a complete and comprehensive playbook for achieving collaborative, collective change at scale.

Additionally, since the initial collective impact article was published, we have grown in appreciation of the many diverse perspectives, voices, and experiences that are deepening the conversation and practice around collective impact. We most appreciate those who have challenged dimensions of collective impact that they feel are misinterpreted, not fully explained, or flat out wrong assumptions made by some who state they are doing collective impact. Two areas in particular, equity and community engagement (both highlighted by Wolff), have benefitted from significant contributions from many practitioners and academics in the field. Here are just a very few of the recent perspectives on community engagement and equity in collective impact that we have found to be compelling and helpful.

Since the initial article was published, our writings on collective impact have focused on conveying, as Wolff’s published editorial does, the additional dimensions that are important to this work. In 2014, we and a number of other collective impact practitioners published Collective Insights for Collective Impact to address what we saw emerging at that time as important implementation dimensions that had not been articulated in the original article. More recently, in collaboration with our partners in the Collective Impact Forum, we published the Collective Impact Principles of Practice to highlight a number of the most critical dimensions of implementation that effective practitioners in the field are identifying as essential to the collaborative change process. Additionally, here are several of our own follow-up publications on the practice of collective impact that are consistent with the observations that Wolff makes:

  • Collective, collaborative change requires a unique form of leadership. “The Dawn of System Leadership,” co-authored by Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, and John Kania, provides perspective on the leadership capacities needed to catalyze collective leadership in others. FSG and the Collective Impact Forum are continuing to prioritize the topic of leadership in collective impact, building on the work of academics such as Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, and Ron Heifitz, as well as practitioner based efforts such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s program for Results-Based Leadership.
  • Collective impact initiatives function in highly complex contexts in which overreliance on linear approaches to change are likely to fail. In “Embracing Emergence,” we share ideas for how collective impact initiatives can support participants on a journey of embracing an adaptive way of working that requires an iterative process of collective seeing, learning, and doing. Since the process and results of collective impact are emergent rather than predetermined, unforeseen opportunities present new solutions. Our thinking in this space has been deeply informed by complexity and social innovation experts such as Brenda Zimmerman, Frances Westley, Michael Quinn Patton, David Snowden, David Stroh, and many others.
  • To achieve population level change, collective impact initiatives must pursue system and policy change strategies. In FSG’s Guide to Evaluating Collective Impact, we present a theory of change for how collective impact initiatives achieve scale results, and we emphasize systems change as a key lever, providing a number of indicators of systems change to encourage pursuit of such work. Additionally, FSG frequently presents on the difference between systems level strategies and program level strategies in collective impact efforts, and the importance of focusing on the system level to achieve scale change.  A July 2014 blog by colleagues at FSG, “What are Strategies,” identifies several categories of systems level strategies that collective impact practitioners can pursue in their work.

In closing, we agree that it is important to place collective impact (both the initial article and subsequent knowledge and practice development under the collective impact name) in context with the broader, multi-decades movement and evolution around collective, collaborative change. Wolff’s compilation of the best of writing about comprehensive community-wide collaboration from the last several decades represents a wealth of useful information for the field and we will ensure they are highlighted here on The Collective Impact Forum.

As Tom Wolff and others (including FSG) have noted, the publication of our article five years ago was far from the beginning of the movement around comprehensive community change. Neither do we expect it to be the final chapter. As this movement continues to evolve, we look forward to additional contributions such as Wolff’s published editorial (and the myriad of contributions we list here, as well as many others) that can deepen understanding of how best to practice collective impact in a manner that leads to a more just and equitable world.

Continue the Discussion in the Following Posts:

Ten Places Where Collective Impact Gets It Wrong by Tom Wolff (Tom Wolff & Associates)

Getting Back to the Purpose of Collective Impact by Tynesia Boyea-Robinson (Living Cities)

What do you think? Share your thoughts and comments below.

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