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What’s the Deal with Collective impact?

By petra - Posted on 22 May 2014

I’m enormously excited about the new Collective Impact initiative in Victoria.

But some people are less than rapt.

In fact, a number of non-profit people just rolled their eyes when I mentioned it, and said:

“It’s the new flavour of the year for funders.”

“Just more hoops we have to jump through.”

“Same shit, different shovel.”

Or a deep, poignant “Sigh…”.

But no! (I said), this is different. This stuff is paradigm-altering.


It is a different shovel.

A shovel we might not even recognize, and it will (by necessity) require the coordinated commitment of funders over years, or decades, so it can’t just be the ‘flavour of the year’ (like youth leadership, early childhood development, mental health or homelessness have been).

In fact, Collective Impact will specifically address the disheartening cycle that pits non-profits against each other in an eternal quest for increasingly scarce resources that are (seemingly randomly) earmarked for whatever new priority has captured the imaginations of funders this year.

In fact, it could eliminate the need to shoehorn effective programs into continually evolving funding parameters in an attempt to secure resources to provide vital services (and associated skillsets), altogether.

And while we’re on the subject, why do we keep cycling through funding priorities like a bunch of serial monogamists?

  • Because we are working with a dated intervention model based on a mechanistic view of the world;
  • Because we are working with highly adaptive ‘wicked problems’ that are resistant to intervention;
  • Because we are continually attempting to find the highest leverage problems in hopes that we can then identify the most efficacious solutions to our wicked problems.

Our intentions are good. Our outcomes aren’t.

Collective impact offers an alternative.

A different shovel.

In a nutshell, Collective Impact offers a structure to leverage the principles of self-organization and complexity in service of large-scale, long-term system transformation.

In the current model, each non-profit seeks to redress whatever entrenched social problems are within its purview, while obsessively wooing individual donors and funders to ensure they can continue to do so. Individual donors and funders attempt to sift through the maze-like array of societies (some of whom are much better at wooing, but not always better at redressing) to determine which are likely to offer the most change per dollar.

In their 2011 paper Collective Impact, John Kania and Mark Kramer suggest that “it is no longer enough to fund an innovative solution created by a single non-profit or to build that organization’s capacity. Instead, funders must help create and sustain the collective processes, measurement reporting systems, and community leadership that enables cross-sector coalitions to arise and thrive”.

Collective Impact is not just about layering collaboration onto the existing model.

It identifies large-scale community priorities and mobilizes community members from all sectors: non-profit, government, business, First Nations, health and education in a coordinated effort to effect significant social change. The model includes basic structures, including one or more ‘backbone organizations’ for coordination; and shared measurement to ensure that efforts are based on research, including rapid local feedback.

Organizations are still free pursue their missions, and are encouraged to self-organize (Collective Impact is not the Borg: it is not seeking to assimilate), but activities are nonetheless aligned within an all-sector community-wide initiative. Information regularly flows from organizations into the collective to inform the emergent process.

It is an emergent process.

In their 2013 paper Embracing Emergence: How Collective Impact Addresses Complexity, Kania & Kramer write “The processes and results from collective impact are emergent rather than predetermined, the necessary resources and innovations often already exist but have not yet been recognized, learning is continuous, and adaptation happens simultaneously among many different organizations”.

It’s about using existing resources, some of them currently invisible, in new ways.

Kania & Kramer (2013) explain: “The rules for interaction from collective impact create an alignment within complex relationships and sets of activities which, when combined with shared intentionality, causes previously invisible solutions and resources to emerge”.

We’ve worked with self-organization at Young Parents Support Network for some time, and the conclusion we have come to is that when a system (or an initiative) wants to evolve, it becomes an active agent in the process. It might sound naïve and idealistic to say that invisible resources are just lying around untapped, when there are so many intelligent people seeking them on a daily basis. Our experience has been that one of the strongest indicators of a system that wants to self-organize is the appearance of unexpected allies and resources.

Watch for them!

Collective Impact is currently being used at local and international scales to improve health outcomes, address food security issues, and vitalize communities. It is appropriate for any large-scale initiative that is a priority for a given community.

It’s in its infancy in Victoria. So much so that I don’t even know who the contact person for the initiative might be.

But, as I mentioned earlier, I’m enormously excited.

Watch for it!