Why collective impact?
(What follows is taken from the Stanford Social Innovation Review's classic paper 'Collective Impact.' The original article can be read here.)
Just as we are stuck within the frame of a ‘heroic leader’ being necessary for an organisation to thrive, we are stuck thinking that a ‘heroic organisation’ is the answer to our entrenched social problems.
Our current social sector is built on the unnamed assumption of ‘isolated impact’ – the best way to tackle social problems is to find and fund a solution embodied within a single organization, and hope that the most effective organisations will grow to extend their impact more widely.
Individual organisations strive to display their own potential to achieve impact, independent of the numerous other organisations or factors that may affect the issue. When funding is at play, organisations compete by emphasising how their individual activities produce the greatest effect.
Unfortunately, there is very little evidence to suggest that isolated efforts are the best way to solve social problems. Even worse, complexity thinking says that if you are operating in a complex system (as we are), individual actors (organisations) cannot produce outcomes – only the entire system can produce outcomes.
We need to move from thinking in terms of ‘isolated impact’ to thinking about ‘collective impact.’ This is not the same as collaboration. The social sector is littered with examples of partnerships, networks, and other joint activities. But collective impact efforts are different.
Collective impact requires a systemic approach to social issues. It requires focus on the relationships between organisations and the progress toward shared goals. In fact, there are five key elements to social impact initiatives:
1. Common agenda: all participants must have a shared vision for change, including a common understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving it through agreed actions.
2. Shared measurement systems: all participants must collect data and measure results consistently to ensure all efforts remain aligned, the participants are able to hold each other accountable, and are able to learn from each other’s successes and failures.
3. Mutually reinforcing activities: all participants are not required to do the same thing but are encouraged to undertake the specific set of activities at which they excel in a way that supports and is coordinated with the actions of others.
4. Continuous communication: all participants need to develop deep levels of trust and a common vocabulary (an essential precondition to developing shared measurement systems), and the only way to do this is to talk regularly and often.
5. Backbone support organizations: a separate organisation and staff with a very specific set of skills need to be created to manage collective impact efforts as coordination takes time and none of the participating organisations has any to spare.
At the Collective Impact Agency, we are working to promote the need for collective impact initiatives and to provide the infrastructure to enable these to succeed,