The Culture of Collective Impact


“It took a lot of time to build trust. People had distrust for years. You can’t undo that in a few meetings”

“They don’t invite people like me to their tables. I went to a meeting and it was all clearly dominated by the same folks who have all the resources and don’t know our community.”

“Everyone thinks they are special and doing something no one else is doing. There is so much organizational pride. But all your special efforts are missing the mark, and we have to talk about that.”

Last summer, I spoke at a conference of funders convened by the Collective Impact Forum. To prepare for the event, I contacted several trusted leaders in different communities who had been involved at various levels in collective impact initiatives. I heard enthusiastically about the promise of collective impact, but I also heard comments like those above that led me to a conviction: collective impact efforts must be as rigorous about culture as they are about data and strategy if they wish to achieve enduring change.

Coming to Believe in Collective Impact

I came to believe in collective impact from a cognitive dissonance I increasingly experienced during two decades of work in the nonprofit sector. It culminated in April, 2010, when I awoke to a headline that my hometown Milwaukee had the worst 4th grade reading scores for African American children in America. That same day I received a newsletter from a well-regarded youth organization boasting about the outcomes it was achieving for the children they served. I could not reconcile why we had great programs achieving outcomes, and yet the city-wide numbers did not seem to ever change.

My former organization Public Allies partnered annually with more than 500 local nonprofit organizations in 23 communities. We saw the great impacts of so many groups first-hand, but we also we were confounded by the issue siloes, geographic turf wars, and egos that prevented any real progress on solving complex community problems. Issues like education, economic security, housing, and health are not fragmented in peoples’ lives, but the systems that serve them are. They are even fragmented at the neighborhood level. We had a project once that hired youth as community organizers to map out the assets in their neighborhoods, and the youth were shocked to find that the teachers and principals at their schools, local pastors, youthworkers at nonprofit agencies, and other neighborhood leaders did not know each other. Without more comprehensive efforts, it seemed that isolated impacts of organizations rarely sustained or spread.

In 2010, I began writing my book, Everyone Leads: Building Leadership from the Community Up, and sought examples of truly comprehensive collaborative efforts. Through our Allies, I learned about the Strive Partnership in Cincinnati and The United Way of Greater Milwaukee, which led efforts to bring organizations together in initiatives that had begun actually moving the needle on city-wide numbers in regard to education and teen pregnancy prevention. The White House Council on Community Solutions, which I had been appointed to, also began around that time. We decided that rather than look for great programs to scale, that we should find communities that actually had moved the needle on long-term problems. As we began our exploration, John Kania and Mark Kramer of FSG’s seminal article “Collective Impact” was published in The Stanford Social Innovation Review and greatly influenced our work. Our own research on community solutions which we published in our Council’s 2012 White Paper on Community Collaboratives reinforced and built on the lessons they shared.

Today there are hundreds of collective impact efforts in America and abroad that are seeking to apply the basic 5-part structure that Kania and Kramer presented: (1) Common Agenda – common understand of the problem, and a shared vision for what it takes to make progress; (2) Shared Measurement – common data and evaluation tools to support planning, learning and progress; (3) Mutually Reinforcing Work – coordinating and synchronizing work across agencies to ensure accessible, comprehensive, and non-duplicative work; (4) Continuous Communication – coordinating dozens of organizations through regular meetings to coordinate, share, learn, and adjust their work; and (5) Backbone Support – an organization with dedicated staff capacity to convene, coordinate, and align the efforts of the collective. These ingredients together were an innovation that separated collective impact from traditional collaborations that were often limited side projects for organizations rather than the center of their work.

Building a Collective Impact Culture

Another ingredient often included with the five above is a charismatic, influential, and catalytic leader who can bring leaders to the table to establish a collective effort. This type of leadership may be important for launching an initiative, but it will take other types of leadership to build and sustain it. Authentic, adaptive, inclusive, and collaborative leadership styles are essential for these efforts to truly move the needle. At Public Allies, we spent 20 years building thousands of such leaders, and evolved 5 core values that help leaders at all levels work better together. When I view collective impact through the lens of those values, principles and practices emerge that will create a greater culture for enduing collective impact success.

1. Collaboration

“Collaboration is not a natural state in the nonprofit sector,” a staff member at a backbone organization started, “Nonprofits have always been rewarded for differentiating themselves as better than others, especially in this increasingly competitive funding environment. One cannot turn a switch and expect these attitudes and behaviors to change instantly or former resentments to be forgiven. You have to pay attention to the dynamics, call out the elephants in the room, surface and resolve conflicts. It is a very human process.” Another backbone leader shared, “After every meeting there is someone whose ego has been bruised and another who is frustrated by the process, and I spend a lot of time just keeping everyone at the table and committed to the process.”

Collaboration doesn’t just happen because we put people around a table and say: “Create a common agenda and strategy – go!” Effective collaboration is about building trust, and there must be an intentional effort to build it by getting members to own their own and understand others’ motivations, interests, concerns, and leadership styles. There are many tools groups can use to build such trust. Trust building cannot be viewed as an event you do and get over with, but as an ongoing process that is integrated into the work and managed by the backbone facilitators.

Some believe that the absence of conflict means a collaborative is working well. In M. Scott Peck’s classic community building guide, A Different Drum, he describes this as pseudo-community. To create an authentic community, you must surface and address conflicts and differences. That is why it is so important to intentionally and continually build trust and pay attention to team dynamics. If you don’t, the conflict will happen outside the room – people leaving the meeting and complaining about each other and the process. If you build trust, those differences will surface in the room and produce greater learning, innovation, and progress.

Key Recommendation: Collective impact efforts should ensure that team building is part of their ongoing agenda with a goal of creating transparent and trusting environments.

2. Inclusion

Just as collaboration is not natural to the social sector, inclusion sadly is not either. The structure of collective impact efforts often bakes exclusion into its core. Some efforts begin with a steering committee of influential business, government, and nonprofit leaders who are not representative of the communities they are serving, have little direct experience with the issues they are addressing, and don’t even represent or reflect the people directly working on the issue. When the steering committee, backbone, and committee leadership lacks diversity, it sends a message that inclusion is not valued. A backbone leader from a large urban area shared: “If we avoid the issue of race, we end up with caucuses of people of color not trusting the process. It continues to break down trust if not dealt with directly.” Communities are of course demographically different, so inclusion goals will vary by community, but who is at every table matters.

At Public Allies, we taught that diversity and inclusion are actions you are accountable for achieving, not ideals you hold internally. Collective impact efforts that are committed to diversity and inclusion need to address it at several levels. First, they need to bake it into the structure and ensure they have diversity at every level from the steering committee down, and not just a few token people but representation that fits the community. Second, they need to ensure that organizations with diverse leadership – large and small – have equal voice and participation, especially those at the grass roots. Numerous studies indicate that the larger a nonprofit or foundation, the less likely it is to have women or people of color in leadership, so we must be careful not to just have the biggest players at the table. Third, in our most racially diverse communities, groups need to apply a racial equity lens to their work not just by analyzing the disparities that may exist for the problem they are tackling, but by understanding how power and privilege may distort how they see the problems, solutions, expertise, and goals. This becomes easier when you have diversity at the table, because when you change who is at the table, the table itself (the norms, conversations, and perspectives) will change. Leaders demonstrate their commitment by holding themselves accountable for who is at their tables and making the conversations about inclusion and equity explicit.

Key Recommendation: Make sure you demonstrate inclusion at every level from who sits at the tables and sets the agenda to how you analyze and organize the work of the initiative.

3. Community Engagement

A backbone leader shared a story of a community engagement effort that ultimately failed: “We tried to get community to buy into our process, but realized afterward that we really should have been getting them to own it.” Many collective impact efforts have begun to build in community engagement efforts, but often these are limited to “voice” – inviting limited input or feedback from community residents. Some of these efforts are important and worthwhile – one collective impact effort hosted community forums in low-income zip codes sharing result data with community members to find out if it matched their lived experience. Such efforts are a start, but true, enduring change must be owned by community.

A neighborhood-based nonprofit leader shared, “The (collective impact) initiative doesn’t respect community elders and the other grass roots people who know the community and are trusted. They do the frontlines work every day.” If we want to create needle-moving change, we must recognize that community residents – family members, friends, neighbors – are on the front lines of producing outcomes and change informally every day. This includes residents themselves and small faith-based and community efforts often staffed by volunteers or neighbors. As John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann of The Asset Based Community Development Institute and Maurice Lim Miller of Family Independence Initiative have so well demonstrated, we need to view community members not as clients of service but as producers of service and partners in our outcome delivery systems. If we want better outcomes for families, we must engage those they trust most. This means that efforts must consider true community organizing that builds resident leadership and participation as a critical strategy for collective impact.

Key Recommendation: Move beyond voice to partnership, engage an organizing effort to recognize and support resident-led activities that produce and reinforce the outcomes you seek.

4. Continuous learning

At a Stanford Social Innovation Review roundtable, a backbone leader shared: “The beauty of a collaborative approach is that for the first time you finally air your dirty linen. You have to look at what has worked and what hasn’t worked. You look at your vulnerabilities.” This last word is one I’ve heard many times from backbone leaders – vulnerability. To truly collaborate, learn, and grow together we must be vulnerable. This again is not a normal practice in nonprofits that fight to get recognized for their singular excellence and impact. If we have been effective at collaboration, inclusion, and community engagement, we can build the trust necessary for this.

I often tell a story of a presentation I did on “worst practices” of leadership that included a list of “things I suck at.” Before sharing it publicly, I shared it with my employees. This was really scary, but as everyone viewed the list ‒ which included my aversion to conflict, my challenge with time management, and my shyness with strangers for example ‒ they all began nodding. The truth is that the things we suck at aren’t a secret. People are rarely surprised by the feedback they receive in 360 reviews, but we are scared to view the feedback because it will reveal that we aren’t fooling anyone. If you are always late, everyone notices. If you dominate every discussion and don’t listen, everyone notices. This also goes for organizations – our shortcomings and mistakes are hiding in plain site.

When we own our mistakes, shortcomings, and failures, we open up the possibility that people can talk about them with us. When we don’t, they talk about them without us. We will be more effective if that feedback is shared in the rooms. In a data-driven process like collective impact, we must own that our efforts – good as they may be – have not been enough, and we must open our ideas, work, and results to others’ feedback. That vulnerability opens the door to more honest innovation, learning, and progress.

Key Recommendation: We need to create an environment where leaders can own what hasn’t worked as well as what has, and use data together for continuous improvement.

5. Integrity

“We have to hold everyone accountable to the same standard. Everyone has to own their responsibility and they’ll be called out if they are not meeting it,” a backbone staff member shared. Integrity at its core is about being accountable to those we work with and those we serve for what we say and do. In collective impact, it is important that such accountability is shared. This is a results-based process, and when the process has defined agreed upon results and a roadmap, everyone must be held accountable for their part of the initiative.

The process itself must also have integrity. It is important as we define a common agenda that we also define common culture – the values, expectations, and accountability everyone will share. Everyone should understand how decisions are made, what role and influence they have, what they are expected to do, and how success will be measured and shared. This also means that the steering committee and backbone team must be clear on how they will be accountable to the collective, and treat all members with the same respect whether they are a $25,000 grass roots organization or a $25 million service provider. The integrity of the process matters.

Key Recommendation: Collective impact efforts should be clear about roles, expectations, access, and accountability at every level, and hold everyone to the same standards of communication, participation, and results.


Collective impact as a field is new and growing rapidly. Much of the early research and work on collective impact has emphasized the structural, strategic, and measurable. To succeed long-term, there must be more attention paid to the cultural. Culture is created through shared values, expectations, and goals. These must be built intentionally, transparently, and evolve with the project. Collective impact efforts that focus on building an effective culture will achieve greater and more enduing change.


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