Exploring Collective Impact – Perspectives from The Philanthropist


This post is a condensed version of my Guest Editorial for a special collective impact issue of The Philanthropist, a quarterly review for practitioners, scholars, supporters, and others engaged in the nonprofit sector in Canada.
Since its introduction in the Winter 2011 edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the theory of collective impact presented by FSG consultants John Kania and Mark Kramer (2011) has attracted considerable attention in the United States, Canada, and around the world. According to Regina Starr Ridley, Publishing Director, “Collective Impact is SSIR’s most viewed article with close to 300,000 page views, more than any other article SSIR has published.” The framework certainly has resonance with many people in the social sector, and its potential promise of fostering innovation and addressing complex social issues has spawned a virtual movement of those adopting the approach and eager to learn more. But is collective impact merely a re-branding of collaborative approaches that have been used for years, or does this model provide new insights and techniques that will in fact break through on some of the most intractable problems affecting western societies?

In a special issue of The Philanthropist released this month, we set out to explore collective impact from a Canadian perspective in considerable depth and detail, and we think you will find the results to be interesting and thought provoking. Over the past year, I have had the opportunity to speak with many people to try to learn more and get a handle on collective impact, and I found that there was indeed a strong current of interest in the framework, along with some healthy scepticism.

In a conversation in December 2013, Tim Brodhead, former President & CEO of the J.W. McConnell Family Foundation, suggested that “This is really a corrective to some of the pathologies of traditional philanthropy. Most philanthropy is driven by the very personal ideas and needs of the donors, whereas collective impact has the potential to create more community-based solutions and approaches.” Tim thought that collective impact could also be a corrective to our over-reliance on government to solve problems but pointed out “that success often depends on a level of maturity and skills at the community level” and that backbone organizations must first and foremost be learning organizations dedicated to creating a sense of shared responsibility. He saw a challenge in the “centralizing tendency” of the approach, and the risk of “funders trying to avoid responsibility, or ending up exercising too much centralizing control and power.”

Evolutionary, not revolutionary

Collaboration has become commonplace in the nonprofit sphere and is encouraged by funders as a response to the complexity and interdependence of social issues as well as the scarcity of resources. But herein lies a common misunderstanding: Collaboration is not about eliminating duplication – indeed true collaboration demands more of its participants because it requires them to work together in different ways, some of which may in fact require additional resources and effort. And collaboration is just the starting point: collective impact is really all about how to get from collaboration to collective action.

I call collective impact evolutionary, not revolutionary, in that it very much builds on extensive experience over decades of the arduous and complex work of creating transformative change at the community level. Along with FSG, particular credit is often given to Anne Kubisch, who led the Aspen Institute’s Roundtable on Community Change for many years, the work championed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, and the principles of Asset-Based Community Development developed by John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann. In conversation, John Kania has stated that collective impact “is squarely in the systems change category” and suggested in our interview that “the five conditions of Collective Impact gave language to what many people already intuitively knew, but in a way where we can now have consistent conversations about this work, and people understand what it takes to do this work in a rigorous way.”

Where to from here?

One of the themes that I heard frequently throughout this inquiry into collective impact was the desire to learn from each other, and I was delighted to find that this spirit infuses the work of Tamarack – An Institute for Community Engagement and FSG, the two key players in supporting collective impact efforts in Canada.  In our interview with John Kania and Fay Hanleybrown from FSG, they both emphasized how enthusiastic they were about the recent launch of the Collective Impact Forum.  Tamarack has launched its own Community of Practice for collective impact practitioners and freely shares resources through its website and online communities.

In addition to an active program of workshops scheduled across the country, the big news in Canada is the Collective Impact Summit to be hosted by Tamarack on October 6-10 in Toronto, Ontario. Designed as a hands-on learning event for practitioners and others interested in collective impact, the Summit will feature many of the leading thinkers from Canada and the United States in a five day interactive conference that will be the first of its kind in Canada.

As many of our authors in this special issue have suggested, we look forward to continuing the conversations in communities across Canada, in future issues of The Philanthropist, and on the Collective Impact Forum and other online communities that allow us to meet across borders to share ideas and expertise. I invite you to explore the articles in The Philanthropist, available on the website and also posted here on the Forum as resources, and to share with us your thoughts and experiences. As the African proverb suggests, “If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.” That pretty much sums up collective impact for me.
The Philanthropist (vol. 26, no.1)

Letter from the Editor

Guest Editorial: Collective Impact by Larry Gemmel


The Promise and Peril of Collective Impact by Liz Weaver

Apprendre a danser le tango sur un fil de fer: Agir selon une approche d’Impact Collectif by Lyse Brunet

Learning to Tango on a Tightrope: Implementing a Collective Impact Approach by Lyse Brunet

Collective Impact: Venturing on an Unfamiliar Road by Hilary Pearson

The Role of Philanthropy in Collective Impact by Cathy Mann

The Canadian Boreal Forest Agreement: Unlikely Allies Pursuing Conservation and Sustainable Development in Canada’s Boreal Regions by Roisin Reid

Community Knowledge: The Building Blocks of Collective Impact by Lee Rose

Innoweave and Collective Impact: Collaborations Is Just the Beginning by Aaron Good and Doug Brodhead

United Way and Success By 6: Growing Up with Collective Impact by Michael McKnight and Deborah Irvine

Collective Impact: The Birth of an Australian Movement by Kerry Graham and Dawn O’Neil

Evaluating Collective Impact: Five Simple Rules by Mark Cabaj

Q & A: John Kania and Fay Hanleybrown by Liz Weaver

Point / Counterpoint

Point/Counterpoint on Collective Impact by Don Bourgeois and Paul Born

Book Review

Deepening Community: Finding Joy Together in Chaotic Times by Larry Gemmel


Sign Up to Download

You will also receive email updates on new ideas and resources from Collective Impact Forum.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Confirm Your Registration

You will also receive email updates on new ideas and resources from Collective Impact Forum.

"*" indicates required fields

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.