Collective impact and what this trend means for your organization

Many trends in the nonprofit sector pop up and then fizzle as quickly as they have appeared, while a few stick around and have a significant impact on how organizations operate. After having the opportunity to work with a few organizations that are pursuing a collective impact model and hearing this term at nearly every meeting I attend, I am convinced this trend is one that will stick around and could result in fundamentally changing the way some organizations do their work and achieve their missions. Additionally, many funders are enthusiastic about the concept of collective impact and how such models have the potential to really advance social change and improve outcomes in specific sectors, like education.

If you are not familiar with this concept, an article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s Winter 2011 edition (see link at the bottom of this article) summarizes it this way, “Unlike most collaborations, collective impact initiatives involve a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants.” Essentially, individual organizations, often from across the different sectors, work together to define common goals and intended outcomes and then work in a coordinated manner to achieve their often audacious goals over time.

One long-time critique of the nonprofit sector has been that many small organizations work in isolation, essentially using up resources to only peck at very complex problems. In the view of the authors, John Kania and Mark Kramer, of SSIR’s “Collective Impact” article, the result is that “nearly 1.4 million nonprofits try to invent independent solutions to major social problems, often working at odds with each other and exponentially increasing the perceived resources required to make meaningful progress.” With a collective impact approach, organizations across sectors start working in a coordinated and aligned manner with the goal of making significantly greater progress on the issue they are addressing with the additional goal of better utilizing resources.

Moving your organization toward a full collective impact model requires willing partners across sectors, a long-term view and often a dramatically different approach to your work. Thus, it can be out of reach for some nonprofit organizations. Still, organizations can learn from and adapt some of these approaches to improve their effectiveness without becoming part of a full collective impact project. Consider the following ideas as a few places to start in thinking about what the collective impact trend means for your organization:

Help board and staff members understand the collective impact model as an emerging and important trend in the nonprofit sector. Share the SSIR article during board and staff meetings and allow time to discuss the implications for your organization’s work.

    Get a sense of how other organizations, inside and outside of your community, are using this approach to accomplish goals that are similar to your organization’s goals.

      As part of your next planning process, consider how elements of a collective impact approach could be applied to your organization’s approach and programs.

        Consider how better aligning your goals and measures of success with partner organizations could help improve outcomes and effectiveness for everyone involved.

          If you could see the collective impact idea working for your organization and your mission focus area, start working with partners to possibly put this kind of model into effect. More organizations are becoming involved in these kinds of initiatives, so some of your colleagues maybe able to share ideas and lessons learned to help you get started in advancing this kind of approach. Nationally, the Strive Partnership ( is one of the more prominent examples of collective impact in action. Locally in Colorado, Boulder IMPACT ( and the Adams County Youth Initiative ( are two examples of organizations advancing this model in different ways and at different stages of development.

            With the concept of collective impact gaining momentum and support and resources continuing to become more scarce, it is essential for nonprofit leaders to consider how their organizations could achieve more through these kinds of deep partnerships. For organizations working on complex social problems, collective impact approaches may become the standard, so your organization should be prepared to shift your approach, take part and possibly provide leadership in this new way of working.

            You can read more about collective impact, example initiatives and how such initiatives are often structured here:

            See also:

            Do More Than Give

            The Power of Collaborative Solutions

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