Lessons in Examining the Role of Advocacy and Organizing in Collective Impact


By Brian Kennedy

This year, Frontline Solutions worked with the Collective Impact Forum to conduct research on how collective impact initiatives can leverage advocacy and organizing to create more equitable systems and policy outcomes. We asked three primary questions:

  • How can advocacy and community organizing strengthen collective impact efforts and why aren’t they used more frequently?
  • How can collective impact efforts become more effective at changing power structures?
  • What promising strategies used within collective impact efforts can create systems change?

The analysis of interviews, the literature, and case studies led to several prominent and consistent themes. First, we learned that community organizing and policy advocacy are critical but underutilized strategies for realizing equitable systems change. Secondly, we found that in equitable collective impact efforts, partners must address and disrupt both internal and broader political power dynamics in order for collective impact to lead to equitable changes in systems and structures. Lastly, we learned that in effective collective impact initiatives the “outsider” approaches that are endemic to community organizing can not, and should not be sacrificed in favor of “insider” strategies.

The report, Rebalancing Power: Examining the Role of Advocacy and Organizing in Collective Impact, culminated in several recommendations on how to create more equitable and effective collective impact efforts as well as a set of reflection questions collective impact partners can utilize.

To dig deeper into the specific findings and recommendations, read the report in its entirety, here.


Our research underscored a core tenet of collective impact: that no two communities or issues are alike. Regardless of the differences between communities, this research uncovered three ways in which collective impact can make equitable, system-level impact:

  1. Incorporate the values and principles of community organizing. Democratize the early design process of a collective impact initiative. Identify the limitations of the initiative for engaging in advocacy, and seek resources to build needed organizing skills. Consider engaging professional facilitators to mitigate internal power imbalances.
  2. Create the conditions that are necessary to engage in advocacy. Prioritize advocacy as a way to create a stronger civic infrastructure. Be strategic about deciding when to engage public officials, balancing the desire to cultivate powerful allies with the autonomy needed for advocacy, organizing, and “outsider” strategies.
  3. Build relationships and trust, particularly with grassroots and community-based organizations. Forge a culture of transparency and collective decision-making, prioritize active trust-building, and create metrics to evaluate relationship-building.

Call to Reflection

In an effort to understand how community organizing and advocacy can drive more equitable outcomes, this research found that no two collective impact efforts are alike. The specific ways in which backbone organizations, funders, and stakeholders engage in work is unique to issue area, geography, local politics, and a wide range of other factors. Despite these differences, we believe that, by being intentional about incorporating principles and practices from community organizing and advocacy, collective impact efforts will result in more equitable and longer-lasting change.

While no set of recommendations are applicable to every collective impact effort, backbone organizations, funders, and leadership can use the following questions to reflect on how our recommendations may apply to their work.

Who are the organizers and advocates, and how are they involved in decision-making?

  • Which stakeholders are absent, and why?
  • Are organizers and advocates engaged in the design phase?
  • Where does decision-making power ultimately rest?

What tensions (historical and contemporary) exist among stakeholders and partners?

  • Do any partners have relevant histories that impact relationships?
  • Are there inherent tensions in the mission and goals of partners?
  • What type of relationship does the backbone organization have with potential partners and stakeholders?
  • Is the backbone organization representative of the communities served? When might it be helpful to engage an outside facilitator to mitigate power imbalances?

Who will carry this work forward in the long term?

  • Who are the individuals and organizations that have worked on this issue in the past? How are they engaged?
  • Once the initial goals and objectives are achieved, who will “own” this work? Are they engaged as equal partners?

Brian Kennedy is coauthor of the Frontline Solutions report Rebalancing Power: Examining the Role of Community Organizing and Advocacy in Collective Impact. He serves as Policy Advisor with the Office of Recover Programs at the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

Related Resource

Listen to a podcast with Rebalancing Power coauthor Brian Kennedy and Frontline Solutions founder and senior partner Marcus Littles as they discuss the findings of the report and what they discovered through the process.


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