New Research Study: When Collective Impact Has an Impact


We are excited to share with you the recently published: “When Collective Impact Has an Impact: A Cross-Site Study of 25 Collective Impact Initiatives,” conducted by a research team from the organizations ORS Impact and the Spark Policy Institute.

This study, commissioned by the Collective Impact Forum in early 2017, was designed to look at the question of “To what extent and under what conditions does the collective impact approach contribute to systems and population changes?”

In order to explore these questions, the research team studied 25 sites — with eight deep dive site visits — and has generated a rich set of findings that we hope will be useful for the field of collective impact practitioners, community members, funders and researchers/evaluators.

The research team looked at the implementation of the five collective impact conditions and the Principles of Practice, and how these contributed to the following:

  • Early Changes: Changes to the environment that lay the foundation for systems and policy changes, such as increased partnership quality, collaboration, and awareness of the issue.
  • Systems Changes: Changes to core institutions within the initiative’s geographic area that (1) may be formalized and likely to sustain or more informal experiments that could lay the groundwork for future formalized changes, and (2) may happen in a single organization, multiple organizations with a common purpose (both in terms of issue area and sector), or multiple organizations with multiple purposes, and
  • Population Changes: Changes in the target population of the initiative, which may be specific people within specific systems, geographic areas, or with specific needs.

A key finding of the report is that “the role of the collective impact initiatives in contributing to population change alongside other efforts or enablers is a critical and valuable aspect of social change.”

The content below highlights some of the key findings from the rich and nuanced report. For more depth, we encourage you to read the Executive Summary and the Full Report.

In addition, we would like to thank the funders supporting this study: the Annie E. Casey Foundation, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Houston Endowment, the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

Our Collective Impact Forum team will be working over the coming months to share additional insights for how these findings may inform your work. Stay tuned for a webinar diving into the study and its findings, future blogs going deeper on specific pieces of the study, and virtual coffee chats with leaders from some of the sites that were study participants. We also welcome other ideas for how we can make the findings of this report most useful for you … do let us know!

Map and List of 25 Study Sites

Map and List of 25 Study Sites


Population Change

Overall, the study found that:

1) 20 of the 25 collective impact sites studied had achieved population change on at least one outcome

2) For all eight deep dive site visit sites, the research team found that collective impact undoubtedly contributed to the designed population change.

  • For three of these, there was evidence that the CI approach had a strong contribution to population change, with low plausibility of any alternative explanation for how that change could have otherwise occurred
  • For the other five sites, the researchers found evidence that CI had been a necessary element of the population change story, but alone was not sufficient for explaining the population change achieved (i.e., it was necessary but not sufficient for creating the change)

System Changes

The study also looked at what type of system changes the deep-dive sites were affecting, and how those related to population change:

  • Changes in services and practices are the most common systems changes achieved across sites; formalized system changes were also frequently seen in sites
  • Amongst the eight site visit sites, the three with no strong plausible alternative explanations were more likely to have a focus on data and on resources, whereas the five where collective impact was necessary but insufficient for achieving population change were more likely to focus on political will and policy change
  • Population changes generally stemmed from changes in services and improved practices and policies

Early Changes

In addition to population and system changes, the study looked at what early changes were created by the collective impact initiative that lay the foundation for these subsequent changes.

  • The most frequent early changes that were identified by the eight site visit sites as contributing to longer-term change were the collective impact initiative’s role in strengthening partnerships, building and enhancing collaboration, increasing or reframing visibility on the issue, and building political will.
  • Across the broader set of 25 sites, additional early changes included increasing data availability and use, and increasing the capacity of local partners.

Outcome from Implementing Collective Impact

In addition, the study explored the implementation of the collective impact approach, and how implementation related to the outcomes achieved. Key findings include:

  • Study sites generally demonstrated stronger implementation of Backbone Support and Common Agenda conditions and emerging or no implementation of Shared Measurement and Continuous Communication
  • For sites with more mature implementation of the conditions, backbone support, common agenda, mutually reinforcing activities, and shared measurement all were contributing to early changes and systems change outcomes. There was no strong relationship identified between continuous communication and outcomes.

Advancing Equity within Collective Impact

The study also looked at how initiatives approach equity in their work – specifically the initiatives’ capacity to engage in equity action, implementation of equity-focused actions, and their representation and meaningful inclusion. They found that initiatives with strong and emerging equity focus showed promise in their equity outcomes; those with no focus typically did not see results that advanced equity with a few exceptions.


Finally, the study highlights four implications that are relevant to all collective impact stakeholders:

  • Collective impact is a long-term proposition; take the time to lay a strong foundation
  • Systems changes take many forms; be iterative and intentional
  • Equity is achieved through different routes; be aware, intentional, and adaptable
  • Collective impact initiatives take on different roles in driving change; be open to different routes to making a difference

Additional specific implications for funders, practitioners, community members, and researchers/evaluators are also included in the body of the full report and will be the topic of future blogs.

Download the full report and executive summary

What findings from the study resonated with you? What seemed similar to your own work? What seemed different? Let us know in the comments!


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