Avoiding Pitfalls with the Collective Impact Principles of Practice


No two collective impact initiative are the same … that of course is the reality of working to make progress on complex, systemic issues.  However, one thing that has tripped up many initiatives using a collective impact approach is that they have been so focused on implementing the “Five Conditions of Collective Impact” – outlined in the original article Collective Impact in the Stanford Social Innovation Review – that they forget about the *how* this work actually unfolds.

Several years ago, my colleague Sheri Brady and I worked to lift up much of what we were learning about the “how” of collective impact – to help others avoid this trap.  I find that few folks are familiar with what we put together: the Principles of Practice for Collective Impact, which add to this original framing of collective impact.

Below I’ve reintroduced these Principles, but there is a field of research and practice relevant for each so please consider these resources just as a starting point!

1. Design and implement the initiative with a priority placed on equity.

For collective impact initiatives to achieve sustainable improvements in communities, it is critical that these initiatives address the systemic structures and practices that create barriers to equitable outcomes for all populations, particularly along the lines of race and class. To that end, collective impact initiatives must be intentional in keeping equity at the center of an initiative’s governance, participant composition, planning processes, strategy identification and implementation, and use of data and evaluation. Some resources and examples to dive deeper:

  • This blog by Junious Williams and Sarah Marxer is a great place to start for more
  • Equity Matters in Collective Impact, keynote by Angela Glover Blackwell
  • This webinar, featuring Deycy Hernandez – Director for Promesa Boyle Heights, talks about one initiative’s experience centering equity and community within their work.
  • The keynote Beyond Seats at the Table: Equity, Inclusion, and Collective Impact by Vu Le. We have the video and transcript as well as a podcast of this talk.
  • A range of resources on equity

2. Include community members in the collaborative.

Members of the community—those whose lives are most directly and deeply affected by the problem addressed by the initiative—must be meaningfully engaged in the initiative’s governance, planning, implementation, and evaluation. Engaging community in these ways helps collective impact efforts address the issues most important to those most directly affected, can build capacity and enable community participation in and ownership of solutions, and helps embed the work in the community so that it will be more effective and sustainable. Some resources and examples to dive deeper:

3. Recruit and co-create with cross-sector partners.

Collective impact collaboratives are created by and composed of actors from across sectors and parts of the community, including nonprofits, residents, government, private sector, and philanthropy. Not all initiatives will engage all sectors actively at the same time, but collaboratives made up of only one or two types of actors (e.g., all nonprofits, all funders) typically do not have the diversity of actors required to create the systems-level view that contributes to a robust collective impact initiative.

  • Systems thinking tools, such as those included in this toolkit by FSG, such as actor mapping, can be a useful place to start when thinking about who and how to expand engagement.

4. Use data to continuously learn, adapt, and improve.

Collective impact is not a solution, but rather a collaborative problem-solving process. This process requires partners to remain aware of changes in context, to collect and learn from data, to openly share information and observations with others, and to adapt their strategies quickly in response to an evolving environment. To accomplish this, initiatives should have clear learning priorities, build strong structures and processes for learning, and create a learning culture that enables the group to use meaningful, credible, and useful qualitative and quantitative data for continuous learning and strategic refinement.

5. Cultivate leaders with unique system leadership skills. For collective impact initiatives to achieve transformational change, leaders must possess strong facilitation, management, and convening skills. They must be able to create a holding space for people to come together and work out their disparate viewpoints, they must possess the capacity to foster shared meaning and shared aspirations among participants, they must be able to help participants understand the complexity and non-linearity of system-level change, they must be dedicated to the health of the whole and willing to change their own organizations in service of the group’s agenda, and they must be adept at building relationships and trust among collaborators.  Two great pieces to go deeper on systems leadership are:

6. Focus on program and system strategies.

The mutually reinforcing activities that the initiative takes on to achieve its goals should focus on collective program and system change strategies rather than individual programs or organizations. As described in The Water of Systems Change,  this means attending to explicit conditions such as policy, practices and resource flows, but also semi-explicit and implicit conditions like relationships & connections, power dynamics and mental models.

  • This panel discussion from the 2018 Collective Impact Convening shares the experiences of three collective impact leaders working to pursue systems change

This webinar series can help unpack systems change topics if you are interested in learning more.

7. Build a culture that fosters relationships, trust, and respect across participants.

Authentic interpersonal relationships, trust, respect, and inclusion are key elements of the culture that is required for difficult work like collective impact .

8. Customize for local context.

While the five conditions are consistent across collective impact initiatives, and initiatives benefit a great deal by learning from each other, customizing the initiative for the local context is essential. To that end, it is important to situate new collective impact in the local historical context, and in relationship with other collaborations already in place.

I encourage you to think not only about the five conditions of collective impact, but these principles of practice as well. While ideally these are tended to from the beginning of an initiative, it is never too late to introduce these to your practice.

What do you think? How do these principles show up in your work now? Feel free to share in the comments!


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