Getting Started – What is Collective Impact?


We’re kicking off the Collective Impact Forum podcast by diving into the foundations of the collective impact approach towards long-term social change. So if you have ever been wondering what the term “collective impact” means, and what makes up this specific approach on cross-sector collaboration, we hope you listen in.

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Please find a transcript of this conversation lower down this page.

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Podcast Transcript

(Intro) Welcome to the Collective Impact Forum podcast, here to share resources to support social changemakers working on cross-sector collaboration. In this episode we’re kicking off our Getting Started series with a discussion on the foundations of the collective impact approach. So if you have ever been wondering what the term collective impact means and what makes up the specific approach on cross-sector collaboration, we hope you listen in.

Tracy Timmons-Gray: Hello, and welcome to the Collective Impact Forum podcast. In today’s episode we’ll be answering the big question of what is collective impact, and going over the different foundational points about the approach.

For today’s discussion I’m happy to sit down and chat with my very own teammates at the Collective Impact Forum, and the fellow co-host of this podcast so please welcome executive director of the Collective Impact Forum, Jennifer Splansky Juster, and director of programs at the Collective Impact Forum, Robert Albright. Jen, Robert, thanks so much for joining us today.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Hi, Tracy. Good to be here.

Robert Albright: Thanks, Tracy.

Tracy Timmons-Gray: For our listeners we want to just do a short series of episodes for the podcast that was called under the main theme of getting started so if you were just coming to the term of collective impact or wanting a foundational discussion on it, we wanted to set up a few episodes just really going into the different components and facets of collective impact. So this is a great place to start if you have just been thinking about the term or what it means.

To get things started, so for Jen and Robert, let’s kick things off at first with a little background about the Collective Impact Forum. What is the focus of the Forum, and how did you both enter into the collective impact space?

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Sure, Robert, I can start off and then hand it over to you. So the Collective Impact Forum is a program that is hosted as a partnership between the nonprofit consulting and research group, FSG, and the Aspen Institute’s Forum for Community Solutions.

Our mission here at the Forum is really to help people that are collaborating across sectors using the collective impact approach to have the tools and resources and technical assistance and peer connections that help them in advancing their work. We sometimes call it field building around collective impact but really what we’re trying to do is help those who are doing the really important and hard work of collective impact to have what they need to succeed in their work.

I will just say I sit within FSG which is the nonprofit consulting group. I’ve been here for over a decade, and about half of the way into my tenure here I helped launch the Collective Impact Forum. I was really interested in this work because I had a background in doing work in health and in education, working with community groups and philanthropy to advance their goals, and I started working with more and more collaboratives that were doing work together. We really saw the power that collaboration could bring to this work and so when we decided to launch the Collective Impact Forum as a field-building program, I transitioned over into this role and have just really enjoyed getting to know many folks doing this work across the country.

Robert Albright: Tracy, I would just add, thanks again for inviting me to participate. My journey is somewhat similar to Jen’s actually so I’ve been with FSG for over a decade. I started my time in FSG’s Boston office working for FSG’s consulting practice, and the first couple years I was at FSG I did a good number of consulting projects. We were partnering with foundations and nonprofits and other partners on helping launch different cross-sector partnerships, and I just became very interested in this type of work, and it was around the 2014-2015 timeframe as Jen and others were getting the Collective Impact Forum off the ground and they were looking for other members to join the team to help build out some of the program offerings and help create connections among funders and backbone leaders and others so I switched roles. I’m still part of the FSG team but joined the Collective Impact Forum team in 2014.

So my background prior to FSG, I had worked in economic development in North Carolina where I’m from and where I work from a home office now. In that work, this was 15-plus years ago, I saw a real need for people to come together across sectors, and it’s definitely been a throughline across my career, just seeing a lot of bright spots and exciting examples of collaboration, people coming together and working consistently over a long period of time to address really complex challenges in their community.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: And you know, Robert, one thing that I would also just add. A lot of folks ask why are FSG and Aspen partners on the Collective Impact Forum and where did this work and this partnership come from, and we’re just so lucky to partner with our colleagues over at Aspen, and it’s a really interesting origin story, at least I think so.

Our colleagues at FSG, John Kania and Mark Kramer, were the initial authors of the article titled Collective Impact in the Stanford Social Innovation Review back in 2011. That article really I think surprised us in how it caught on like wildfire, and I can say a little bit more later on the origin of that article but folks were really interested in this idea of collective impact and were looking for ways to really get access to more information about how to do this work well. So that’s what led our organization to think about investing in starting this program in addition to the more traditional consulting work that FSG had done.

At the same time, the Obama administration had a task force called the White House Council for Community Solutions, and that was a task force that was really looking at what it took to achieve community change with a benefit for what were called Opportunity Youth. What that task force really uncovered was a very similar sort of approach to community collaboration, and they also were excited about the collective impact approach based on the evidence that it was similar to the approach they had identified for really contributing to community change.

When the Obama administration, the White House Council for Community Solutions, wrapped up its tenure, the work actually spun out and became a program at the Aspen Institute called the Forum for Community Solutions, and so leaders of FSG and that program at Aspen, Melody Barnes, Steve Patrick, and Monique Miles thought, well, rather than having two parallel field-building efforts, let’s practice what we preach and come together and think about how we can create a field-building program together to help practitioners and community folks use this as an approach to community collaboration. So I just shared that as a little bit more of the origin story of the Collective Impact Forum.

Tracy Timmons-Gray: Before we get to the meat of the episode where we’re going to be really focusing on the foundations of collective impact, is there any more you want to share about what the Collective Impact Forum does today?

Robert Albright: There’s work that we do on a couple of levels. One, we’ve really emphasized the importance of creating a platform, an online platform, for leaders across not only the U.S. but around the world now to access tools and resources on how to partner and bring together expertise and perspectives from lots of different partners to address complex challenges in their communities so that’s one kind of offering or resource for the Collective Impact Forum, is the work that, Tracy, you and others have done to curate and point people to a lot of case studies and webinars and resources that FSG, Aspen, and many of our other partners have developed over time. So the online platform that is available is certainly a key aspect of what we do.

We also organize in-person workshops and trainings throughout the year, and we have several of those of varying size from much larger, 800-plus person annual convenings to smaller workshops specifically on those that are playing that facilitation role, and that connective tissue role in collective impact. We also facilitate smaller communities of practice. These are often groups that form that might have a similar role so people who are all grantmakers who are providing funding into different collaboratives, we’ve created peer learning communities for funders, and we also have created peer learning communities around specific challenges or needs in collaboration like how you use data among partners. So that’s another way that we try to support the field. We think about supporting the field at different levels from the broader base online resources that are freely available to these larger conferences and workshops to the more customized peer learning communities.

The last thing I would say is we’ve also increasingly started doing more customized coaching and technical assistance where we’ll actually come alongside and work more intensively with individual communities. In that type of work we might bring some of the content from our larger conferences and events to a specific community, and then also look for ways to customize the support through ongoing coaching calls and feedback for those who are working on partnerships in a specific community.

Tracy Timmons-Gray: I know we mentioned the term collective impact quite a few times already but we actually haven’t sat down and really defined it. How about we start there? How about we start with defining collective impact for listeners?

Robert Albright: Collective impact, really the term collective impact emerged out of an initial article that was written in the Stanford Social Innovation Review from some of our colleagues at FSG that really distilled down a lot of interesting lessons learned and some common patterns and trends that we had seen around effective collaboration so collective impact is a term that was coined in that article that really means—at a summary level it means that you’re seeing a commitment of people across different sectors so from government, business, nonprofit and philanthropy, they’re committing to really addressing a complex environmental or social challenge in their community, and they’re addressing it in a structured way that really leads to change over a long period of time.

Tracy Timmons-Gray: You mentioned talking about it that it’s in a structured way, and I understand that collective impact is made out of five conditions. Why don’t we share about what those conditions are, and we can go into each one?

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Sure, I’m happy to take that, Tracy. So before I dive into the five conditions, one thing I will just mention is we have a formal definition of collective impact. Robert, I love how you described it, keeping us honest to not using so much jargon but just for posterity, I would share the formal definition of collective impact which is collective impact is the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem at scale. So, Robert, you did a great job of describing what that means in much more straightforward language.

But what that original article that Tracy and Robert have already mentioned laid out were these five conditions which really are those core components of the approach. The five conditions that were identified are a common agenda, mutually reinforcing activities, shared measurement, continuous communication, and backbone support.

Tracy Timmons-Gray: For our listeners, let’s maybe dive into each one, and I’d love to hear maybe some examples or some descriptions so for those that are in the field, they can maybe kind of consider how does it actually apply to their own work. So maybe let’s start with common agenda. It sounds pretty straightforward but I’d love to hear more about it.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: The common agenda is really when you have these partners coming together. All of the folks in the room spend time coming to a shared understanding of the opportunity or the problem that the group is coming together to address, and based on that shared understand really articulating the common goal that everyone is going to commit to accomplishing as a collaborative.

There are a couple things that I really want to emphasize with the common agenda. The first is that it’s really helpful if the common agenda has kind of a very specific goal so that folks coming together know really more specifically than just a vision statement what it is we’re trying to achieve, and ideally that there is a timeframe in which that goal can be accomplished.

I would also add then another important component of the common agenda is really emphasizing an equity component to the goal so that the collaborative is very clear on what the populations are that ought to be a focus with keeping equity at the center of the work if this work is going to truly achieve the goal it seeks for the community so I’ll just get much more specific.

As an example, you might have an education initiative that’s focusing on improving outcomes for young people in the community, and that goal might be something similar to the Roadmap Project in Seattle. Their topline common agenda goal when initially launched was to double the number of students in South King County and South Seattle who are on track to graduate from college or earn a career credential by 2020, and that the collaborative is committed to nothing less than closing the unacceptable achievement gaps for low-income students and children of color, and increasing achievement for all students from cradle to college and career. So you had doubling the number of students, you had a timeframe by 2020, you had a specific geography also, South King County and South Seattle, and then you had the component that I mentioned which is focusing on closing the achievement gap while also increasing achievement for all students cradle to college and career. So that’s a pretty well-articulated common agenda statement.

Tracy Timmons-Gray: Are there any others too? I know both you and Robert have worked with a variety of initiatives, whether it’s health, working with veterans, juvenile justice, the environment. Are there any other common agendas, goals that we can also illustrate for those that may be coming from different spaces but still having difficulty understanding like what is the scope of the goal?

Robert Albright: I can share another one. This is a collaborative that I’ve been working with in North Carolina that’s focused on bringing more women into science and technology, engineering and math careers, and so they’ve developed a common agenda for a specific county in North Carolina so they have very specific geographic focus and they’ve got a very specific audience that they’re serving, women in STEM careers. Then they set a specific goal around increasing the number of women that not only enter into that career but also advance and progress at levels that up to now there’s been a lot of inequities in women, particularly women of color, getting into that space.

So that’s an example on a very different issue, different geography where you’re seeing a group come together to look at all of the factors that might be causing that inequity in pay and progression, and then looking at things that you could do to address that based on the goal that they’ve identified around entrance into and progression through a career in that space.

Tracy Timmons-Gray: Another one of the conditions is mutually reinforcing activities which is quite the term so I’d love a little bit more about what does that actually mean, and how is that used to support a collective impact initiative.

Robert Albright: It’s definitely one of those, Tracy, that connects closely to the common agenda just what Jen was talking about. So if you are able to get clear on your goal and your area of focus and what you ultimately want to achieve as a collaborative, with mutually reinforcing that’s really the set of activities, the strategies that you’re going to work on among your partners, the ones that you’ve prioritized to say if we’re able to really focus and achieve change, these are the differentiated, the different things that we can do. We’re not going to all do the same thing but let’s do things that are connected to each other, that are coordinated. What’s our plan of action to essentially see that all of these different organizations’ work is going to be greater than their individual sets of activity?

So another example that comes to mind around mutually reinforcing activities, there’s another collaborative that I’ve spent some time working with that’s focused on really focusing on increasing third-grade reading and reducing the disparities between all students and if you specifically look at students of color in this school district so for them the mutually reinforcing activities, they’ve identified three different big strategic bets following some of the great work that’s come out of the Campaign for Grade-Level Reading which is a national initiative which has really distilled down some key activities that collaboratives can focus on if they’re trying to address a goal like third-grade reading so they have a specific focus around summer learning loss so they have some activities there. They have a specific area of focus and a work group that’s working around school readiness so you can see that there’s different activities that are happening within each of these work groups so I would describe mutually reinforcing activities as one of those things where you often see the planning and the high-level goals translated into a very concrete set of priority activities that partners are going to work on.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Robert, that’s great. That’s such a good example, and one thing I would kind of drop out of that and highlight is that when we want to think about mutually reinforcing activities, it’s really helpful to think about both programmatic work that can be strengthened and enhanced and better coordinated through partnering in a collective impact approach but also thinking about systems change work. There’s some kind of work that will be much more effectively pursued when you have a group of organizations working together, and some of those types of changes might be policy change or trying to shift the way resources flow on a specific issue, either public resources or philanthropic resources. You also can think about changing power and power dynamics through a collective impact initiative, and then yet another thing you could think about is changing culture or mindsets or mental models that might be contributing to holding a problem in place. This is the kind of work that no single organization typically can take on on its own, and so collective impact as an approach can bring people together to work on some of those system-type set strategies, really pursuing systems change in addition to some of the programmatic-type work.

I would just point people also to an article called The Water of Systems Change that really dives into a framework that I just spoke about. This is an article by Mark Kramer, John Kania, and Peter Senge, that gives some really great examples of systems change work if you’re interested in learning more.

Tracy Timmons-Gray: That’s great. Is there any more that we could say like I know for a lot of listeners, that can be confusing, about where does my work fit in? Is it more program? Is it systems? How are we moving forward?

Robert Albright: For me to answer that question, Tracy, a lot of it does go back to the common agenda and if you identify a goal that you’re trying to address as a collaborative, and then you start to say, OK, what will it actually take to see change around that goal, pretty quickly it does lead you to a conversation around what are the sets of programs that we are doing that are achieving change maybe in isolated pockets but it will often lead you to a conversation of what are some things that are about how our systems are structured that no amount of effective programs are going to get us there.

So I think that that doesn’t always happen in this work but I think it’s a good sign that people are interrogating and looking at what are some of the drivers of the challenges in their community that can lead you to a conversation of some of those things that Jen was just talking about. From my perspective I think most collaboratives do start where there might be more visible or known sets of programs that they can focus on, and I think that can be a great place to start but it’s important to bring in some of these systems change elements which often aren’t part of people’s day-to-day jobs if they’re not working in an advocacy-type role or an organizing-type role or they’re not thinking about connections across their organization and other organizations or maybe they work primarily in a nonprofit role and they don’t think as much about how public resources could impact the work beyond just philanthropic resources.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: A specific example would be an education initiative for example that is focusing on increasing college access and success as one of the pieces of its work. You can imagine that on the programmatic level there might be a real effort to get more nonprofits working with families on completing the FAFSA so this is work that might be happening at the community level, engaging schools and local nonprofits, and the collective impact initiative might help organize a campaign and a friendly competition across schools or districts to see who can get the highest percentage of their students signing up for the FAFSA, and at the same time you might have some what I would consider more systems change work in a couple different ways. You could have a mindset shift culture campaign focusing on creating a college-going culture if this is a community where there are a lot of first-generation college-going students so you could be working on shifting mindsets towards greater understanding and expectation of the value of postsecondary education, and you could also imagine that collective impact initiative doing policy work at a state level to change some of the FAFSA requirements or something that sits at the decision making of the state where it would benefit students in the region but it’s not a program that groups locally are administering. So hopefully that distinction gives a little bit more specificity as well.

Robert Albright: One other example that comes to mind is some work I’m aware of in Michigan where they have an early childhood initiative there. It’s not statewide. It’s in one specific area that they have identified. Part of their strategies are around the early childhood delivery, the programs that are delivering early childhood programming or the training of early childhood providers so they are more programmatic interventions but they have an entirely—they have an identified strategy around resource and funder alignment so they’re looking at ways that funders, the private and public funders, can actually better align their resources to support early childhood. That’s an example too of thinking about how you can bring together program and systems changes.

I know we’ve been lifting up some education and economic development examples, and I’ve seen this in health examples as well. I’m thinking about some work around childhood diabetes in Texas where they’ve had very clearly identified programmatic things that they’re doing to support children and families but there’s also a lot of things in the system in this community around the kind of mental models or narratives that people say or tell themselves or tell others around diabetes, and so that’s another initiative that’s trying to tackle both the programmatic level, and then the broader kind of narrative systems change level.

Tracy Timmons-Gray: Another condition we know about is and that’s mentioned is continuous communication which like common agenda sounds pretty straightforward, it’s communication done continuously. Is that correct or how is it best described, and what does that look like when doing collective impact work or working in a collaborative?

Robert Albright: It does sound fairly straightforward. I think it is one of those that sometimes people say, oh, I’ve got that but it does require intentionality. I think at its core it’s about creating open lines of communication, building trust among partners. It’s also things like prioritizing community engagement so what are ways that those who live in the community that you’re trying to serve have meaningful ways to engage and provide leadership and guidance for the initiative, not just to be the occasional town hall that asks for their feedback so there is quite a bit in that continuous communication bucket.

There’s a collaborative, I mentioned earlier about this one that’s been working on bringing more women into science, technology, engineering, and math, STEM, the abbreviation STEM fields, and one thing they’ve done around continuous communication, they have a staff person who works within the community college who’s kind of playing this coordinating infrastructure role, and a lot of their job is to prioritize continuous communication among partners so she does things like meeting one on one with the steering committee members in between meetings. They have a monthly meeting of this steering committee which are leaders of companies and governments and higher education institutions. As a part of the continuous communication is how you prepare for those meetings and you allow space for people to connect with each other during those planning meetings.

There’s also continuous communication that happens with regular email updates and they have an online kind of project management platform that they use to share articles and keep each other up to date but that’s just among that core planning team.

Then there’s this whole other wider network of other partners that you imagine would plug in around specific priorities and strategies and a broader base of community feedback and engagement so you can see how the continuous communication piece does encompass quite a bit and it doesn’t reside just within that full-time staff person’s role either but that’s certainly an important function that any of these collaboratives have, if you’ve got that dedicated capacity to be thinking about ways that you’re connecting the dots and building open lines of communication between partners.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Yeah, and I would just add one thing there. I think that’s a great example and I love those specifics. I think the other thing also is that hopefully you’re building trust and relationships between participants so that the person who’s coordinating the collaborative doesn’t always have to be like a hub and spoke model so that over time there are relationships amongst the participancy that more of that like natural organic communication happening so I think with continuous communication we really want to think about both the formal structures and processes which are really important as well as the trusting relationships so that that communication also happens on its own.

Tracy Timmons-Gray: That’s right, it sounds simple, communication, but as you both say, it’s super vital, all the different activities to ensure that people are looped in and feeling they’re fully part of the initiative.

I know one of the conditions that is one of the most challenging that we’ve run into in the field is around shared measurement. I’d love a little bit more about that and why it’s so important when doing collaborative work.

Jennifer Splansky Juster:
Oh, yes, shared measurement. So shared measurement is the idea that when you have this group of individuals and organizations that are coming together, they are identifying a handful of indicators that can help the collaborative understand if you are making progress towards your goal, and that those indicators are agreed upon by everybody in the collaborative, and if you are part of an organization that is working on something that contributes to that indicator, you and others working on that piece agree to measure your progress in the same way. So that’s where we get to this shared piece.

Sometimes with shared measurement you are looking at publicly available data and the trick is really agreeing on what you’re going to track and what you’re going to measure but also beneath that sometimes you are asking organizations who are working on similar things to pick a few different indicators that they will measure in the same way often using the same instruments even.

This definitely doesn’t mean that everyone in the collaboration has the exact same measurement and evaluation system but what it does mean is that there are a handful of indicators, maybe five or 10, that the collaborative has prioritized, that those contributing to that piece of the work really agree to track the same way.

An example of that would be—let’s take an example of an initiative focused on juvenile justice. I’m thinking of a statewide initiative that was really focused on promoting youth success and ensuring public safety at the same time. They had indicators around community wellness and safety as well as outcomes that were specific for the youth that had been in contact with the juvenile justice system. One of the indicators that they identified was reducing recidivism rates or repeat offenses. As this group came together they realized that there were over a dozen organizations that were actually tracking recidivism for young people that they worked with but amongst those organizations, they had many different ways of specifically measuring and tracking recidivism, and so through a conversation around their shared measure of reducing recidivism, they came to an agreement on how they wanted to measure for the collaborative, and those organizations who were using recidivism as an indicator of their own work agreed to measure it in the same way.

So this is important because first of all it helps organizations understand each other’s work more deeply when you have these kinds of conversations but even more importantly it enables organizations to learn from each other because this really allows you to look at apples to apples of the different types of work organizations are doing rather than you might think you were both working on recidivism but if you aren’t measuring it in the same way you might not actually be able to really understand each other’s programs as deeply and learn from each other.

It also can enable greater accountability. If you are sharing your progress on indicators as are others, there is an ability for organizations to hold each other accountable to that shared commitment more clearly, and it can enable you to roll up the data of different organizations in a way that’s more meaningful or aggregate that data in more meaningful ways. I definitely want to emphasize that the primary goal here is learning, learning and improvement but I don’t want to neglect the importance of accountability. Because these organizations are working with populations who often have been underserved for a really long time, trying to improve the quality of what’s happening and the services that are being offered is also really important so it’s both the learning and the accountability that is the purpose and benefit of shared measurement.

Robert Albright: I would just add that oftentimes collaboratives really struggle with shared measurement if they’ve gotten to a very precise agreement on their common agenda. Not that everything goes back to the common agenda but oftentimes it can be place if you have a very vague goal or you’re not precise about who you’re trying to target and serve, then it can be really hard to put clarity around your shared measurement plan so I just wanted to add that.

Tracy Timmons-Gray: To sum up it sounds like we have the common agenda which is coming together to form that agreed-upon goal, we have the mutually reinforcing activities or really which, Jen, I know you’ve described before as really doing the work, that’s all the work that goes into getting to that goal. There’s the continuous communication which is the communicating around all those activities to get to the goal, and shared measurement, tracking the indicators or the data on how we’re doing on getting to the goal and what are we learning along the way, and how can we improve and support each other to get to that goal.

So that’s four out of the five, and then I know there’s the five which is quite a big important one which is the backbone. So I’d love to hear a little bit more about that. It’s a big role and it’s very important to the success of these collaborative works so I’d love to learn more about that.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Sure, yeah, the backbone, so backbone support. The idea with a backbone is that there is staff that is dedicated to guiding the work of the collaborative, and that the folks that are playing the backbone role are waking up every day thinking about the collective impact initiative as their number one focus. Often their job is solely playing that backbone role on behalf of the collaborative.

So the idea of having staff that is dedicated to guiding the collaborative is really important and one of the pieces that I think is most unique about the collective impact infrastructure. I know I have been part of many collaborations that have come together. We get together and we brainstorm, we have great ideas, and then we go back to our day jobs and everyone’s really busy and not a lot of progress happens in between meetings or in between conversations, and having the backbone in part is really important to assure that that doesn’t happen. There is somebody who is there to encourage folks who made commitments to see those through in between meetings.

The backbone is also doing a lot of the logistical, administrative, and operational support to make sure that the collaborative is moving forward but also as Robert mentioned with continuous communication, really network weaving, weaving connections and helping to build relationships amongst participants so there’s a lot we could say about the backbone. We should do a podcast dedicated to the backbone but if you take nothing else away, I would say having staff who is focused on guiding the work of the collaborative is the key part of the backbone.

The other thing I would just underscore is that the backbone is not driving the work or setting the agenda or making all the decisions. I think that’s actually a common misconception, that the power and the direction lies in the hands of the backbone. That’s actually not what is going to be effective in collaborative change, of a collaborative change process. The backbone is guiding, shepherding, and being really adaptive in guiding the process forward and helping a steering committee or a leadership group do that direction setting. So it’s a really tricky role but also a really, really important role.

The backbone can be played by—there are many different forms or structures of where the backbone sits or who plays that role. We see the backbone probably most commonly being a few staff folks that sit inside a broader nonprofit organization, typically one whose mission is aligned with the common agenda that the group is focusing on but we also see the backbone sitting within a philanthropic organization so that could be a private foundation or a community foundation or a United Way. We have seen the backbone actually sit in—where you have staff in a few different organizations that are coming together to play that backbone role but I think just the one caution I would give is that it’s not as effective if you have four people spending 15 percent of their time on this, it really helps to have at least one person whose sole or primary responsibility is guiding the collective impact initiative.

Tracy Timmons-Gray: I think will probably will do an episode on the backbone role because it’s a very deep topic and as you mentioned, there are a variety of backbones. There’s not one kind of way of doing this kind of collective impact approach. It really depends on what the context is and what the context needs in order for that group to get to their goal. So we’ll definitely dive into that topic since it’s a big one.

It sounds like we’ve gone over the five conditions of collective impact, the common agenda, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, shared measurement, and the backbone role but also, I understand there are these principles of practice which work across all five. We’d love to hear a little bit more about that and how that was developed.

Robert Albright: So the principles of practice came out a couple of years after the original collective impact article was published in 2011, and based on FSG’s continued work with collaboratives, based on our partnership with Aspen, and conversations with a lot of partners out in the field beyond the FSG and Aspen realms, we were learning a lot about how collective impact was actually being put into practice and we really wanted to point to a lot of really decades of research and evidence and practice around just some key things that you want to be thinking about as you move from more of the concept into more of the application of collective impact.

So there are eight different principles of practice that we identified in a follow-up blog and publication that came out I think it was 2014-2015 timeframe, and I’ll just highlight a couple and similar to what we’ve said on some of these other topics, we should give these much more attention and follow-up conversations.

One that is very important that Jen spoke to when she was talking about the common agenda is the importance of prioritizing equity when you’re both designing and implementing a collective impact initiative, and this can play out in lots of different ways but it’s not only thinking about how you’re bringing a diverse perspective into the planning and implementation of collective impact but it’s also thinking about how you disaggregate data, how you build people’s capacity, how you think about targeting the solutions, the strategies that you’re going to work on as a group. So equity is one of those that some people have argued there should be a sixth condition but we really like to emphasize that it’s something that should be integrated and throughout all of the aspects of collective impact so that’s a very important principle of practice.

Another one which I spoke to a little bit about when talking about continuous communication but we called out more explicitly as a principle of practice is around authentic community engagement, and if you think about the different ways or maybe first the reasons why you would engage the community, we often find that there’s a lot of work that happens more on the inform end of the spectrum where it’s about telling the community here’s what we’re doing on your behalf as part of this collaborative work, and what we’ve seen a lot of collaboratives do is try to move towards more of another end of the spectrum around authentic engagement, co-ownership, and development of the work together with those with lived experience.

So thinking about the reasons for engaging the community and then really matching your words with your actions in terms of how you do that are really important. Maybe one other one that I’ll mention now and then we can come back to these is the importance of using data for learning and continuous improvement. This really puts the finer point on what Jen had shared around shared measurement but a lot of the collaboratives that we’ve worked with and that we’ve studied and learned from that have been around for a long time have really built a culture of not just data for accountability’s sake but for learning as well. It is one of those key elements of—what sets collective impact initiatives apart is that they are constantly looking for ways to learn and improve, and that requires that you’re using data in really rich ways to inform the work that you’re doing.

Tracy Timmons-Gray: This has been really great to learn about, whether it’s the conditions, the principles of practice. One thing that I’ve been kind of thinking about is the fact that although the article came out in 2011, a lot of these practices, whether it’s around creating that common goal, aligning your activities together, a lot of that doesn’t seem totally new new and seems familiar to collaborative work and community work that’s been going on for a while. Can you speak more about that?

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Yeah, I’m so glad you ask, Tracy. I think it’s really important to emphasize that the Collective Impact Forum and FSG and Aspen certainly did not create the idea of collaborating in across-a sector or multisector way, did not create the idea of community engagement and bringing folks all together to create community change. So everything that we’re sharing here is building on and drawing from decades and decades of work that’s been happening in communities. What folks in the field have told us is that the framework from collective impact and the original article and subsequent pieces that have come out and resources that have been published have helped to create a common language that people doing this kind of work across the country and really across the globe can have some shared terminology and shared framework to better understand each other’s work, to more clearly talk about their work, and in many cases to connect with others and create a field of learning.

So it might have been more fragmented before the term and framework of collective impact were identified, and so this is absolutely based on decades of work that’s been happening in the community and hopefully we have been able to contribute a body of research that synthesizes what has been happening in many different places.

Tracy Timmons-Gray: Sounds like we really got into just the tip of the iceberg on a lot of different topics, whether it’s around sharing data, around the backbone role, around embedding equity practices, and what does that actually mean when you’re doing the work so we have a lot to dive into in upcoming episodes, and really looking forward to talking with you both and other partners that we’ll bringing on dive in so for our listeners, we’re super excited to share this with all of you. If you have any questions for us, we’d love to hear, feel free, you can ping us with any questions you’d like to have discussed on a podcast, just send us an email at our email,, and we’ll be sure to be able to tackle those. I look forward to even more episodes and conversations with you both but first just want to say thank you so much for taking the time out and kind of going over the what is collective impact discussion today.

Robert Albright: Thanks, Tracy.

Jennifer Splansky Juster: Thanks, Tracy and Robert. It was fun.

(Outro) This closes out this episode of the Collective Impact Forum podcast. If you are interested in learning more about the key components of the collective impact approach, we’ve included information in the footnotes for this episode. You can also find more primers and tools on collective impact by visiting our website at, and specifically checking out the page titled getting started. Also, you can stop by our resource library where we are hosting more than 300 resources including webinars, tools, and case studies. The intro music for this episode was composed by Rafael Crooks and our outro music is composed by Kevin McCloud. Please stay tuned for our next episode, and if you are interested in joining us for our next in-person learning event, registration is now open for our 2020 Collective Impact Convening that will be in Minneapolis this May 6th through 8th 2020. Thanks for listening and until next time.


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