At the GroundWork 2012 Conference on Tuesday, October 11, Brent Christopher, President & CEO of Communities Foundation of Texas, provided the keynote on the concept of Collective Impact. I found his explanation insightful, clear and concise as to this new “hot topic” in the nonprofit world.
We keep hearing about how we will all need to do things differently in the coming years with limited funding available, while the need for our services grows and grows, but HOW do we do things differently.
The concept of Collective Impact is a grand project to create social change around a specific issue. As Brent explained it, collective impact is not equal to collaboration. Collective impact is collaboration PLUS, where a group of people tackle a social issue where there is no clear path to success - issues that cannot possibly be tackled by one organization alone. For example, a nonprofit might offer a mentoring program that helps kids excel and is able to touch the lives of many individual children, but collective impact would involve working with government, corporations and the philanthropic community to evolve the education system as a whole and provide true systemic change.
As Brent further explained, John Kania and Mark Kramer, authors of the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s article on the topic, define five conditions for collective success. Successful collective impact typically includes these five conditions that together produce true alignment and lead to powerful results:
- Common Agenda – all participants have a shared vision for change, one that includes a common understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving it.
- Shared Measurement – agreement on the ways success with be measured and consistent data collection will ensure that all efforts remain aligned and enable participants to hold each other accountable.
- Mutually Reinforcing Activities – collective impact depends on a group of diverse stakeholders working together, but not by requiring all participants do the same thing. Instead, each participant is responsible for activities that lie within its strengths in a way that supports and coordinates with the actions of others. All activities must fit together as part of the overarching plan.
- Continuous Communication – Trust can often be an issue among new partners. Developing trust among the participants can often take years of meetings to build experience with each other and alignment toward the common agenda, rather than favor the priorities of one organization over another. This communication must continue on a non-stop basis throughout the partnership to ensure consistency and alignment.
- Presence of a Backbone Support Organization – as defined in the Stanford Review article, managing collective impact requires a separate organization to serve as the backbone for the entire initiative. Coordination takes time and often the participating organizations do not have time to spare. The backbone organization provides staff who can plan, manage and support the initiative by helping facilitate common communication, gather consistent data and hold participants accountable.
The last critical piece to collective impact is funding. Successful collective impact requires a significant financial investment to be able to cover the time of all participating organizations, development and monitoring of shared measurement, resources to support the backbone organization and more. No longer do funders support an innovative solution created by a single nonprofit for short-term solutions. For collective impact to work, funders must be willing to let grantees steer their work without set solutions and must be willing to stay with the initiative for years. Are funders ready to make this shift? Rather than looking for the quick return on investment, funders must focus their attention on a specific social issue and help create a process that mobilizes the organizations involved to find the solution themselves.
Brent spoke about the Texas High School Project as a local example for how a successful partnership works. As the industry shifts, we look to not only nonprofits, but also government, business and the funding community to learn if other similar partnerships will grow and if we are ready to move in a different direction toward collective impact.
Vice President of Programs & Operations