Collective Impact: A Passing Fad, or the Next Big Thing?

Several months ago, John Kania and Mark Kramer published an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled “Collective Impact”, which they define as “the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem.”

Several months ago, John Kania and Mark Kramer published an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled “Collective Impact”, which they define as “the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem.”

The compelling examples they provide of successful initiatives all feature involvement by a broad spectrum of players from nonprofits, business and government.

Kania and Kramer identify these 5 conditions for successful collective impact:

  • A Common Agenda – a shared vision for change
  • Shared Measurement Systems – agreement on the ways success will be measured and reported
  • Mutually Reinforcing Activities – differentiated but closely coordinated activities among participants
  • Continuous Communication – regular meetings over an extended period to build trust and a common vocabulary
  • A Backbone Support Organization – an independent organization to plan, manage and support the initiative, focus people’s attention and create a sense of urgency

A Dose of Common Sense

Their article has generated a fair amount of buzz, and rightly so. It’s the kind of Big Idea that’s easy to grasp and seems like basic common sense when one hears it. Harnessing and focusing resources across sectoral and organizational boundaries in service to a common goal instead of everybody going their own way, with their own ideas about what success looks like? Duh!

New Approaches to Collaboration

The Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership

Supported by TSNE’s Capacity Building Fund, this network is comprised of organizations from the nonprofit, public and private sectors that are leading intervention efforts in hoarding cases. With a 2009 Implementation Grant, the group came together to increase the number of resources available to residents in crisis. Their focus: to better learn how to partner across sectors to provide a range of services as determined by the individual client’s specialized intervention plan.

The network goals have been to:

  • Provide the implementation team with training in assessment and intervention across disciplines
  • Disseminate protocols for appropriate intervention based on national and local best practices for addressing hoarding
  • Build the capacity of professionals across the region to effectively intervene and manage hoarding cases and identify long-term funding options for expanding the hoarding response system in the Greater Boston area

The network members are Springwell, Inc., Metropolitan Boston Housing Partnership, Boston University School of Social Work, Brookline Mental Health Center, Maloney Properties, Inc., Department of Mental Health and the Brookline Community Mental Health Center.

Easier said than done, though: Kania and Kramer say that examples of collective impact for social change are rare. That’s a disappointing but not a surprising finding; the barriers inhibiting cross-sectoral cooperation, whether bureaucratic, legal or psychological, are formidable.

The authors contrast this coordinated approach with the “isolated impact” orientation prevalent in our sector, whereby funders and nonprofits seek to identify, nurture and replicate models developed by individual organizations. They claim that despite the successes of some individual projects, this approach has thus far had little or no large-scale impact on any major social problem.

But is collective impact just another passing fad, like TQM or learning organizations or the balanced scorecard, among many others? All are worthy concepts that have made modest inroads, at best, in the nonprofit sector.

Rethinking the Goal

But there’s reason to believe that this big idea will prove to have some staying power. Why? Because at its core it’s not about tinkering with management models to increase efficiency; it’s about fundamentally restructuring the way we attack broad social problems. It’s about illuminating and then overcoming the counterproductive and often artificial boundaries separating organizations in furtherance of a common vision, a process which must feel liberating and energizing to the participants.

In that regard I was struck by the similarities between the collective impact approach and Future Search, a large-group, cross-sectoral planning methodology that has proved its durability over 30 years. In fact, one can easily imagine organizing a future search at the front end of a community impact initiative as a way of more quickly building the relationships and level of trust needed for long-term success.

Kania and Kramer report that the Strive Initiative in Cincinnati, the best known and most advanced of the projects they discuss, has been serving as a resource to 9 other communities seeking to develop similar initiatives, each based on the particular needs and resources of that community. That’s an encouraging development that bears close watching.

Will the collective impact model take hold over time and transform the way we seek to achieve social change? Or will it become just another passing fad? The jury is still out.

In the ED Forum, TSNE’s Executive Director Jonathan Spack reflects on issues facing nonprofit organizations in and around the Boston area and across the nation. Follow Jonathan on Twitter @JonathanSpack.


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