As a grantmaker, where do you start if you want to end homelessness, solve the healthcare dilemma, or reverse economic decline in major urban centers? It’s a trick question. You could start in twenty different places, but what matters more than your starting point is who you bring along with you and how you engage your travel companions along the way. The issues listed above are notorious for their ability to confound powerful politicians, produce myriad contradictory policies and ultimately consume enormous resources without yielding positive or lasting results. Collective impact is a new approach for these tenacious problems in which multiple, diverse, cross-sector stakeholders work together to coordinate their efforts and assets towards a systems change that will create break-through differences in complex problems.
Changing the system is necessary when attempting to address complex problems because these problems are more than the sum of their parts. In other words you can’t “solve” the big puzzle by tackling just one of its pieces. It is also often difficult to see a system in its entirety or predict how acting on one part of it will affect the whole. Therefore isolated interventions, no matter how ingenious, often fail or fail to produce worthwhile returns on investment. The collective impact approach is gaining ground on systemic change where isolated interventions have been tried and have failed. What is the secret to this novel approach and how does it break the gridlock tenacious topics? In the broadest sense collective impact utilizes the power of diverse perspectives and experiences to get a better handle on the system as a whole. Collective impact brings together diverse stakeholders, including funders, public agencies, private parties, community members, and others to share their perspectives, shed new light on familiar ground, and redefine the problem. With a broader view of the problem new solutions often become apparent and/or multiple solutions can be coordinated towards a common goal.
Collective impact is a relatively new field and studies are just beginning to define what is needed for success. FSG articulates five markers of success including; a common agenda, shared measurement, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and a backbone organization to facilitate the process. The Foundation Center adds the need for; information sharing, opportunities to leverage and maximize resources, mutually developed structures and agreements, and attention to systems solutions. In a 2013 article in Stanford Social Innovation Review John Kania and Mark Kramer of FSG hit upon what is probably the most important element in collective impact and the largest leap for funders and nonprofits. Because systems are complex, we can’t see all the interacting factors all the time, certainly not on our own, and most importantly we can’t predict future events. Successful collective impact endeavors must be prepared to set an intention or a vision for the future BUT abandon a rigid theory of change for how to get there. This can present a real problem if participants in collective impact come to the table hoping to win support for their theory of change and scale their pre-determined solution. It can also be a problem if a group agrees to examine and define the problem together but then determines a fixed solution that may not be applicable as events change the context.
Collective impact shows real promise as an innovative way to tackle large and intractable challenges. However, engaging in this process requires participants to do some internal reflection and perhaps even some transformation to be successful. As Kania and Kramer point out in their article, “the process is the solution”. I take this to mean: if you are seeking to change the world, then you and your organization need to be open to changing yourselves first. The power of collective impact is that it has the potential to bring the participants to a new place where they can see problems, solutions, and their role in a larger system differently. If you are considering, as a grantmaker, engaging in a collective impact endeavor we suggest asking yourself some reflective questions to gain clarity about your own interests, goals, and needs. These guiding questions will help you understand what role you are best suited to play in a collaboration. Our next post will explore the spectrum of organizational and collaborative structures within collective impact and offer some tools for grantmakers to develop a structure that fits their needs.