The Promise and the Challenge of Collective Impact
Melody Barnes, the chair of the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions, recently compared the concept of “Collective Impact”—an approach to social reform that is growing in popularity—to the roller suitcase. The latter was invented around 1970, but it was only in recent years that the idea caught on among ordinary travelers. The tipping point for the roller suitcase, says Barnes, was a societal shift—particularly the sprawling growth of airports combined with an increase in women business travelers.
The notion of multi-agency collaboration, too, may have reached a tipping point. Collective Impact (CI) represents the realization that deeply entrenched social problems require complex solutions, involving multiple agencies committed to a shared goal. Its central tenets were embraced as far back as 25 years ago by the New Futures Initiative, which Metis evaluated with its partners from the Academy for Educational Development and the Center for the Study of Social Policy. Many of the questions about best practices in these initiatives were addressed during the past two decades in the Aspen Institute’s seminal volumes on how to evaluate Comprehensive Community Initiatives. But to acknowledge that CI is a new term for a longstanding concept is not to dismiss it.
Our current In Focus feature breaks down the meaning of this approach to social change, which is enjoying currency among a number of national and local initiatives. John Kania and Mark Kramer of the Foundation Strategy Group (FSG) believe that what makes CI different from past reform efforts is the heightened vigilance that comes from “multiple organizations looking for resources and innovations through the same lens, the rapid learning that comes from continuous feedback loops, and the immediacy of action that comes from a unified… response….” They also believe that, when implemented correctly, CI can greatly accelerate social change.
Yet CI is harder to achieve than meets the eye. Why? It requires not only an enormous amount of collaboration, but of trust among organizations. Often it requires the unity of organizations that have a long history of competing for funding, and, in some cases, for populations to serve.
It can be naïve to think that agencies will abandon their organizational self-interests and be totally altruistic in the service of the common good. In addition, participating organizations need to be in it for the long haul, because working collectively does not happen overnight. It is a long-term way of doing business. A key to CI success over time involves sustaining leadership. These complex projects cannot rely solely on motivated, charismatic, and politically astute leaders who may exit before adequately providing a plan for their succession.
Moreover, CI requires a high degree of collaboration and information-sharing within organizations. Often in multi-service agencies—that have different funding streams and reporting requirements—there are internal silos of measurement and reporting that often cannot “talk to each other.” One of the ways that Metis contributes to the CI process is by helping agencies to strengthen their own internal workings and sharing of data, so that they can define clearly their organizational objectives. In my opinion there must be internal agreement and clarity on the missions and goals before an organization can be a good partner with other organizations.
One of the most exciting aspects of CI is that it embraces ambiguity and sees solutions as emergent rather than predetermined. As a believer in evolving theories of change, I welcome this approach. However, accepting that goals and methods will evolve over the course of a project may be at odds with the current infatuation with using only proven, evidence-based solutions. It will be important to observe how this tension between evidence-based and locally developed initiatives plays out as CI initiatives gain in popularity.
So maybe we need new language to help revitalize an important idea that has held great promise for decades. If the Collective Impact “movement” can provide that push, then I’m all for it.
– Stanley Schneider, President