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Making a Movement: Lessons From Collective Impact

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Published April 27, 2016 Reading Time: 5 minutes

This is a guest blog by Florian Schalliol, current consultant at FSG, a mission-driven consulting firm and former Fellowship Program Manager for the Classy Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @floschalliol. The views expressed in this blog are not necessarily shared by FSG.

Five years ago, the original article on collective impact by John Kania and Mark Kramer debuted in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The article highlighted an intentional, structured, and collaborative approach that many communities were taking to solve complex social problems. The approach, deemed “collective impact,” was defined by a form of collaboration among nonprofits, businesses, government agencies, and other community organizations that meet the following five conditions: a common agenda, mutually-reinforcing activities, continuous communication, a shared measurement system, and a “backbone” organization (more detail about these five conditions can be found in the original article). At the time, another article reacting to Kania and Kramer’s idea of collective impact asked a legitimate question: would collective impact be a useful tool that would truly lead to positive social outcomes, or would it just be a passing “flavor of the month?”

Five years since the article was published, the results seem to tip towards the former. Hundreds of collective impact initiatives have launched, and the results are promising. In New York State, 45 percent fewer youth are in custody, and in Staten Island, there are 32 percent fewer opioid-related overdose deaths since collective impact initiatives launched in those communities. The Collective Impact Forum, an online community for collective impact practitioners, recently surpassed 15,000 members. Collective impact was also featured at the 2014 Collaborative in sessions by Barbara van Dahlen of Give an Hour and Colonel David Sutherland of the Easter Seals Dixon Center for Military and Veterans Services.

The social impact sector is flush with new ideas, startups, and social enterprises that aspire to achieve scale, popularity, and impact—much like the kind that collective impact has achieved. The success of collective impact as a movement presents an interesting case study on how an idea in the social sector can evolve from a concept or innovation into a sector-wide movement. From my time working with and advising collective impact initiatives and new social enterprises at FSG and Classy, I propose three elements of collective impact that I believe contribute to the movement’s success. These elements can be informative guiding principles for those looking to create the next big movement in the social sector.

1. Allow for Local Adaptability

Each collective impact initiative is unique. An effort focused on diabetes prevention in Dallas is quite different from one focused on juvenile justice in New York State. Even efforts focused on the same cause can be structured differently. A diabetes prevention effort in Dallas differs from one in the Rio Grande Valley. Though they are focused on similar goals, the effort in Dallas may have a larger group of stakeholders and organizations already focusing on diabetes prevention than one in the Valley. As a result, the effort in Dallas may need to focus more explicitly on aligning the existing efforts between organizations, whereas an effort in the Rio Grande Valley may need to identify the specific gaps in prevention and treatment and outline strategies to bring those solutions to the community.

It is precisely this adaptability that has created and maintained collective impact’s popularity. Because the problems in each community or region often have a local twist, a one-size-fits-all approach across communities is not always appropriate. (One Laptop Per Child, which provided low-cost laptops to children in developing countries and failed to account for differing local needs (among other things) is a well-documented example.

However, the power of collective impact comes not only from its ability to adapt to local settings. It is also the way in which that adaptation occurs. In 2014, I was a part of a collective impact initiative focused on community development in the under-resourced South Dallas neighborhood of Fair Park. There, national funders, responsible for programs with multi-million dollar budgets sat side-by-side with local community nonprofits and even community members to discuss and debate the problems they would address, how they hoped to do so, and how they would measure their success. As a collaborative effort, everyone’s voice held equal weight.

This approach stands in stark contrast to traditional models of social change, where a funder specifies exactly how a nonprofit can use its funds or where a national organization dictates to its local affiliates how they must execute their programs. As a result, in addition to adapting to the local context, great collective impact initiatives create a sense of ownership and empowerment among the entire community.

2. Breed Humility, Not Ego

The ownership and empowerment that collective impact initiatives create has other benefits as well. When communities come together to co-create solutions—with funders, local nonprofits, government officials, and community members working side-by-side—stakeholders become acutely aware of the role they play in the community’s success. For an education initiative, school officials understand that their instruction is important, but the full success of the community’s children cannot be realized without others. Two examples include early learning and pre-K initiatives that teach children before they enter the public school system or afterschool and summer programs that provide tutoring and additional instruction for at-risk children. As a result, stakeholders in a collective impact initiative begin to understand that they are only one piece of the broad solution—a realization that breeds humility and collaboration in favor of ego-centrism and protectiveness.

An interesting subtle indicator to roughly gauge for this change is the openness of stakeholders to others about their work. For example, in one collective impact initiative focused on early childhood education, many members initially saw an additional meeting as an extraneous group commitment, often only engaging minimally with the work. Within a few months, however, the Steering Committee members were bringing unsolicited questions, proposals, and updates from their own work to share with and gain insight from the broader group. In the initiative in South Dallas, one member, the CEO of a local nonprofit, had recently won a major grant. He defensively agreed he would join us but said, “The money is mine” (we were not after his money). For the first few meetings, the CEO sat cautiously and quietly in the back of the room. However, after seeing the transformative power of the entire community coming together, he quickly became one of the initiative’s most vocal advocates and even opted to chair one of the working groups.

3. Keep It Simple

From adaptability to empowerment to humility, there are many subtle positive forces at play in collective impact. However, despite these forces—and despite all of the many other details involved in a successful collective impact initiative—collective impact is not rocket science. Instead, it has a simple, clear mantra: successful social change requires all stakeholders work together. This succinct, unifying idea can be—and has been—the call to action for communities across the U.S. It has sustained the collective impact movement over the last five years.

Looking Ahead to the Next Five Years

Collective impact is not the solution to all of the many social problems in the world. But its success over the last five years has taught us a great deal–not only about the specifics of creating social change–but also about how a movement in the social sector can gain prominence and spread. Ideas that have a simple call to action are easily understood and embraced. Those that are easily adaptable to a local context are quickly and organically adopted, and those that breed humility create a culture of genuine long-term collaboration. There will certainly be new ideas, fads, and movements in creating social change; but the concept of collective impact has helped illuminate the factors that help transform an idea into a well-known, impactful movement in the social sector.

For those interested in getting more involved in collective impact, visit the Getting Started page of the Collective Impact Forum, which is ripe with advice and tools for starting a collective impact initiative.

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