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Collective Impact: A Game Changing Model for the Social Sector

I recently asked NCDD supporting member Marty Jacobs to write a primer for the NCDD blog on “collective impact.” This strategy for large-scale collaborative change has been gaining momentum among funders and nonprofit thought leaders, and we wanted to make sure NCDD members are aware of the concept.

Marty Jacobs has been teaching and consulting for 20 years, applying a systems thinking approach to organizations. As of September 30th, Marty is bringing her Collective Impact expertise to the VT Department of Mental Health in her new role as Change Management Analyst. Marty can be reached at marty.jacobs.sis@gmail.com.


Workgroup at Sydney R&P meetingOne of the key distinctions between a for profit organization and a not-for-profit one is that the former is focused on increasing shareholder value while the latter is focused on creating community value or impact. Creating lasting impact in the social sector, let alone measuring that impact, is one of the biggest challenges facing nonprofits these days. Past practices often focused on measuring outputs as opposed to measuring outcomes. A new model called Collective Impact is rapidly changing how nonprofits consider their work.

The idea of Collective Impact made waves when the Stanford Social Innovation Review published the article “Collective Impact” in its Winter 2011 edition. It was then followed up with a more in depth article, “Channeling Change: Making Collective Impact Work,” in 2012. In the first article, the authors suggest that the social sector, funders in particular, need to shift their focus from one of isolated impact to that of collective impact. In order for collective impact to be successful, the following five conditions must be present:

  1. Collaborating organizations must create a common agenda.
  2. These organizations must also share a measurement system that tracks indicators of success.
  3. Stakeholders must work together in mutually reinforcing activities.
  4. They must also engage in continuous communication.
  5. There must be a backbone support organization that coordinates, supports, and facilitates the collective process.

The second article outlines more specifics about implementation of the Collective Impact model. In particular, it outlines three phases of Collective Impact:

  1. Phase I: Initiate Action
  2. Phase II: Organize for Impact
  3. Phase III: Sustain Action and Impact

Within those three phases, the follow components for success need to be continually assessed:

  • Governance and Infrastructure
  • Strategic Planning
  • Community Involvement
  • Evaluation and Improvement

While the social sector has been buzzing about Collective Impact, it’s important to note that it is not the answer to every nonprofit’s dream. Here are some questions to ask to determine whether or not Collective Impact is the right approach for your particular situation:

  • Is this a complex problem, that is, one that can only be solved by involving multiple stakeholders?
  • Do we have the capacity to create the five conditions of Collective Impact?
  • Do we have community support on this issue? Will we be able to engage stakeholders successfully in this effort?
  • Can we find backing for the backbone support organization?

Boston 2010 dialogue groupIf you’re convinced that Collective Impact is the right approach, then here are some questions to ask about your group’s readiness for each of the three phases of Collective Impact:

Phase I:

  • Governance and Infrastructure: Who would be willing partners and do they agree that Collective Impact would be effective?
  • Strategic Planning: What data do we currently have and what more do we need in order to assess current reality? Is this feasible?
  • Community Involvement: Are stakeholders receptive to this idea? How well networked are they?
  • Evaluation and Improvement: What currently exists for measuring impact? Do we have the capacity and the systems to track progress?

Phase II:

  • Governance and Infrastructure: What do we need in place for infrastructure and governance in order to keep this effort moving forward? What are we all willing to let go of with respect to control, turf, etc. and what is non-negotiable?
  • Strategic Planning: What have we identified as potential common goals? Is that supported by the data? Does that align with all the partner organizations’ missions?
  • Community Involvement: Who are all the stakeholders and how can we fully engage them in this process?
  • Evaluation and Improvement: Do we all agree on what the best measures for impact are? How will we track it and communicate progress?

Phase III:

  • Governance and Infrastructure: What is working well? What more do we need to do to improve governance and infrastructure?
  • Strategic Planning: How do we stay on track with implementation? How do we deal with setbacks or unanticipated problems? How do we communicate progress?
  • Community Involvement: How do we continue to engage stakeholders? What does meaningful engagement look like over time?
  • Evaluation and Improvement: What are our measurement systems telling us? How do we know when we need to course correct?

While these questions only touch the surface of implementing a Collective Impact effort, they will help create the thinking needed to dig deeper as the process evolves. Collective Impact is a practice – something that will deepen over time as you become more skilled, and with that, you will see greater impact. 

© Marty Jacobs 2013

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Sandy Heierbacher
Sandy Heierbacher is the Founding Director of the National Coalition for Dialogue & Deliberation (NCDD). Sandy has an M.A. in International Management from SIT Graduate Institute, and also serves as a Research Deputy for the Kettering Foundation. Click here for a list of articles and resources authored by Sandy.

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  1. Sandy==thank you for bringing this most valuable construct forward to the broader NCDD community!

    Marty has done a great job of capturing the essence of CI with a primer on the elements essential to the success of its implementation.

    My feedback is this framework serves as an exceptional means for engaging the full scope of consideration in sorting out the opportunities and barriers for resolving complex community development issues. That being said—it also takes a community that is sufficiently sophisticated in understanding the challenges of addressing complex issues—and has the ‘collective’ will to come together transcending organizational boundaries and philosophical differences to craft solutions that may challenge any one if not most all organization’s current agendas and resource commitments in order to achieve broader community goals and needs.

    It at least demands a major investment of time, talent and treasure for the long-run—with a willingness to embrace significant uncertainty as to outcomes that agents commit to devote resources to in discovering meaningful results.

    The lessons learned from those communities who have made this sort of investment bear out that individual and collective will to achieve the desired outcomes is the primary vehicle for success.

    Most will stumble, and perhaps turn away given its inconsistency with our cultures demand for quick solutions that don’t confront existing structures and relationships.

    For those who have the character and perseverance to endure these many challenges to achieving meaningful, substantive change that transforms ways of being and acting—then it may be the approach for you. Most will have to had endured significant suffering to be willing to embrace its full opportunity.

    I highly encourage working alongside those who are in place to facilitate its implementation—ones who have learned lessons from past and current implementation efforts.

    Place this tool at the top of your toolbox shelf—reserved for those who are ready to commit for the long term in a process that can transform how a community looks at itself and responds to the needs and opportunities that often only a few are willing to see and seek.

    Sincerely, Mark

    Mark Maggiora, Executive Director
    Americans Building Community
    PO Box 5888
    Vancouver, WA 98668
    360-992-9969 office
    360-852-8187 fax
    360-713-8687 cell
    mark@abcinc.us
    http://www.abcinc.us
    “Transforming neighborhoods, one Heart at a time”

    A Community Development Corporation devoted to
    Revitalizing Vancouver’s 4th Plain Corridor.

  2. Glenis Joyce says:

    Here is a link to a recent presentation by Liz Weaver, VP, Tamarack— An Institute for Community Engagement

    1 hour 11 minutes, From Collaboration to Collective Impact.

    http://streaminginc.com/si_oip/2013/0010/index.html

    Search #collectiveimpact on Twitter—good overview of what’s happening.

    Thank you NCCDers for all the sharing—a great way to learn.

  3. Dan Duncan says:

    Thank you for your post on Collective Impact. Your questions should be very helpful for a community or organization interested in implementing a collective impact framework.

    One thought I have, based on my Asset-Based Community Development framework, is that under the Community Involvement questions, I think we need to be more explicit beyond the term “stakeholder”. We must define it beyond the usual institutional actors to include the people we serve and their family, friends, neighbors, and associations as co-producers of their own and their community’s well-being in the collective impact effort. And we must move beyond their role as clients or advisors for institutional action. My experience tells me that we cannot be successful without them. If anyone is interested I just did a webinar with July Pehar, from Canada, on this concept. http://www.hddabcd.org.

    • Vicki Totten says:

      Thanks Dan for that reminder about including the folks who are impacted by the issues we are addressing – especially since it is such an important one (and one that I have heard you repeatedly remind those of us fortunate enough to have attended any of your workshops over the years). Keep up the good work – as I know you will!
      Vicki Totten
      St. Edward’s University
      Austin, Texas 78704

    • Thank you, Dan — this is a great point! I’m sure Marti would agree with you on this as well.

      • Marty Jacobs says:

        Sorry for such a late reply. My previous job did not give me much time to keep track of these things. Dan, you’re absolutely right! Paul Born, the ED of Tamarack, talks about the “unusual suspects.” I think that’s exactly what you’re getting at.

    • Thanks to Marty for the overview and to Dan for raising the excellent point that often the definition of stakeholders is too focused on the professional organizations without appreciating the capacity in community members who may not be formally affiliated with one of the official partners. Much energy in a Collective Impact effort can get used up aligning the institutions while leaving the community as a “we’ll get to communicating with them later” lower priority. I really like Rich Harwood’s article in SSIR about this: http://www.ssireview.org/blog/entry/putting_community_in_collective_impact

  4. Marty Jacobs says:

    Just to let folks know, I am expecting to start a doctoral program in January 2015 and will make Collective Impact the focus of my doctoral work. I will be at the NCDD conference in DC in Oct., so I would love to connect with people over this.

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