Three Lessons on How Collective Impact Lands in Places


At Living Cities, we spend a lot of time reflecting on our work. We have committed to the idea of open-sourcing social change and this rapid-fire sharing requires lots of dedicated time to analyzing and re-analyzing what we are doing in real time.

But sometimes, there’s value in taking a step back and looking back at what you’ve done over a long period of time. We were able to do that recently thanks to the release of The Integration Initiative’s Three Year Evaluation Report which reflects back on the first phase of our signature collective impact initiative. The Integration Initiative supported sites in five cities to implement a collective impact model to improve the lives of low-income people. My colleagues Jeff and Elodie have provided their reflections on what this report means for their work, and I want to add my own reflections on what we can learn from the first three years of The Integration Initiative about how to apply the collective impact model in communities around the country.

Collective Impact Depends on Context

There are many approaches to collective impact, and the different frameworks resonate better with different audiences. But as I’ve written about before, collective impact has four core components: a cross-sector table, a shared result, a commitment to changing ways of working, and feedback loops. If you’ve got all these, you’ve got collective impact.

Of course, you can’t just show up in a community, list of these four components, and expect leaders to be able to create a successful collective impact initiative. What we learned through the first three years of The Integration Initiative is that collective impact is merely a tool, and it has to be adopted for the local context in which you are applying that tool. We applied the collective impact principles differently in The Integration Initiative sites, based on what their communities needed. If we had gone into those communities and tried to offer a one-size-fits-all approach to collective impact, we would have failed right out of the gate.

What can be done to support communities adopt collective impact in a way that makes sense for them? That is the true pickle of collective impact. What we’ve found is that communities need support in the process to do collective impact (the how of collective impact), the content areas in which they are working (the what of collective impact), and the leadership capacity of those guiding the work (the who of collective impact). Within each of these buckets, there are many useful tools for application that our partners have found helpful.

Don’t Create Noah’s Ark!

Related to the need for application and context, a big lesson learned along the way for us has been that cross-sector tables look different in different places. At first, we approached The Integration Initiative with the thinking that our site partners would need to create “one table” that had a representative from each organization or sector that the collective impact work was influencing. Turns out, this “Noah’s Ark” approach did not make sense in the places we were working.

Our site partners in The Integration Initiative ended up creating a wide variety of governance structures for their collective impact work, designed to fit not only their local contexts, but also the specific results they wanted to accomplish. Some had large, regional governing bodies with high-profile leadership, where others had governance tables with lower-level managers focused on implementation and execution.

People Want to “Jump to Programs”

Living Cities’ work is all about changing systems to create enduring change. The Integration Initiative was explicitly designed to help our site partners move beyond individual programs to thinking about changing behavior to transform the lives of low-income people. But we found that people are more comfortable working in a programmatic mindset, and it takes time to shift to understanding the need to tackle a problem from a systems perspective.

There are many good reasons for this hesitancy—the familiarity with programmatic work; the extended time-horizon of systems-level interventions; the need to form long-term partnerships that share credit for success; and (not least) the lack of adequate funding for systems work. However, we have found that a systems lens is essential to creating successful collective impact initiatives, and there are two ways to help people shift their mindsets:

  • Design a series of small tests to gain “quick wins” towards your longer-term goals. These quick wins will help you gain the goodwill of partners, and also could help secure additional partners needed to get at broader system changes.
  • Communicate that the overarching “shared result” is a long-term goal that won’t be achieved for 10 years or more. We’ve found that people tend to get very uncomfortable with committing to systems-level changes because they assume these changes need to be made in the next few years. This work takes time, and all partners should understand that.

Have you seen these lessons play out in your own work? Comment here and let us know. To learn more, read the TII evaluation report.


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.