The Real Challenge for Collective Impact

Collective Impact holds great promise for our communities to create sustainable solutions. Leaders will need to be more collaborative, inclusive, asset-based, committed to learn, and accountable to implement this approach effectively.
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Collective Impact has become a hot topic in the nonprofit world. Many communities have begun pursuing Collective Impact strategies, and defining existing efforts as Collective Impact. With the rapid adoption and replication of this model, it is also attracting critics questioning whether this is just a new fad. As one who has promoted this idea, I think it is an important time to critically examine the model so it can succeed.

I came to the Collective Impact approach through my own work over two decades working with hundreds of nonprofits across the country. I saw so many organizations achieving great results for the people they were serving and replicating their programs. But I did not see change. Communities were still experiencing the same problems. For example, I saw large youth organizations claiming successful outcomes for the children they served but the city's overall reading scores and graduation rates remained abysmal. It didn't make sense.

I have also struggled with the fragmentation of the nonprofit sector. Services and programs are divided up in ways that don't reflect how people and communities live and experience social problems. I once read about a human-service reformer who convened over a dozen different nonprofit and public social workers who served the same family. He interviewed the family about their needs and began asking whose job it was to help them. Each participant provided a specific service, but none were meeting their stated needs. In a nonprofit sector increasingly obsessed with managing metrics (the social service version of teaching to the test), organizations may be so focused on showing outcomes for specific interventions that they miss the integrated nature of issues like housing, health, education, safety, and economic security.

Collective Impact reverses the traditional nonprofit social change process. Traditionally, a nonprofit identifies an isolated need, creates a service for that need, demonstrates results, and scales their service to more people in hopes of creating larger societal change. Collective Impact instead begins with changing the community overall and works backward. It begins by setting a goal (for example, increasing graduation rates by 20 points or reducing teen pregnancy by half) and then builds an ecosystem of nonprofits, government agencies, schools, businesses, philanthropists, faith communities, neighborhood groups, and community leaders who create common strategies and coordinate integrated activities among them to achieve the goal. Instead of each group's success being measured by meeting outcomes with their clients, everyone's success is measured based on how they help move the overall community result.

The White House Council on Community Solutions, on which I served, explored dozens of these efforts and found over 20 where they had improved a community-wide result by 10 percentage points or more. Our work built upon the research by Foundation Strategy Group presented in their seminal article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. As a co-author (with Council member Michele Jolin and Willa Seldon of The Bridgespan Group) of the White House Council whitepaper and toolkit on the subject, I am one of those who has helped popularize the idea, but not without reservations.

Last month, Emmett Carson, CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, authored a two-part critique of Collective Impact on Huffington Post IMPACT. While I do not agree with Mr. Carson's critiques which primarily centered around the role of philanthropy in such efforts (I concur with The Foundation Strategy Group's detailed response to his faulty assumptions, I am glad he opened the door to critically examine the model as many communities rush to replicate it. In my own study of these efforts, I have three concerns about how Collective Impact gets implemented.

First, I have found that the process by which leaders from different organizations, sectors, and levels of influence come together for Collective Impact is incredibly important and should not be rushed. These efforts, if done well, will require dedicated engagement, patience, deliberation, debate, and conflict. The question is whether time has been spent building adequate trust among various players where such conflict is constructive or whether there is a lack of trust that makes the conflict destructive. In a recent roundtable on the topic hosted by Stanford Social Innovation Review, leaders of these efforts kept using the word "vulnerability" to describe what is needed among the collaborators. Leaders are used to touting their successes, not being honest about what's not working and why they need help from the others at the table. Groups should ask how truly inclusive their tables are and whether they are mitigating the natural power differentials between funders and grantees, large social service providers and small faith-based efforts so that there is trust and honesty as they work together on solutions.

Second, I worry that the relentless focus on short-term data can trap groups into doing the most measurable activities, not necessarily the right ones. Members of Collective Impact efforts may remain focused on isolated needs and outcomes. As I stated earlier, organizations serving the community must think in a more integrated way about problems and long-term solutions. In my own life experience, I was a disconnected youth who struggled with addiction and depression through my teens and lived on the streets after high school. Fortunately, I received a lot of help that helped me get back on track. In-patient treatment, out-patient treatment, therapy, mutual support group, mentors, and friends could all claim me as an outcome. But while each of these played a necessary role in my recovery, none were by themselves sufficient. And anyone measuring my success after three years would have reached a different conclusion than measuring me after five. It was a mix of service and supports and most of all a supportive community over several years that helped me.

And that brings me to my third concern. To solve our social problems in our communities, the solution must be to build stronger communities not just stronger programs and services. We forget that people live in communities and that families, friends, neighbors, and faith communities have always been the front lines of how communities solve problems. The Family Independence Initiative and two decades of neighborhoods using John McKnight and Jody Kretzmann's asset-based framework illustrate that. Yet, many Collective Impact efforts are still all about institutions and organizations doing things to communities, not with communities. That is a critical distinction. Collective Impact efforts need to explore how members of the community are engaged not as focus group participants or token representatives but as active leaders and producers of service that will create and sustain long-term change.

I believe Collective Impact holds great promise for our communities to create sustainable solutions. However, to do this well, leaders will need to build trust, coordinate their approaches, and engage community members in new ways. Leaders will need to be more collaborative, inclusive, asset-based, committed to learn, and accountable to implement this approach effectively. This is not how groups have worked before. This is the challenge.

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