Collective impact approaches can solve the most pressing, complex social programs.  Single efforts by one organization alone will not be enough to see radical shifts in social outcomes such as poverty, crime, infant mortality, education, addiction, and economic advancement.  Despite collective impact’s potential for greatness, most organizations are not ready for this approach. Ignoring this lack of preparedness will reduce the likelihood of success for these well-meaning initiatives, leaving collective impact as the latest social sector management fad.

Collective impact has been steadily gaining popularity in communities across the U.S., after The Stanford Social Innovation Review published an article on the topic.  In general, collective impact is a structured approach used to tackle complex social problems based on collaboration across government, business, philanthropy, nonprofits and citizens. Based on research, successful collective impact initiatives have the following five conditions.

  1. Common Agenda: Collaborating organizations arrive at a shared vision for change. They develop a collective understanding of the problem and reach an agreement for the approach to use to solve it.
  2. Shared Measurement Systems: There is an agreed upon way to measure success and a common shared measurement system that is used to hold the group accountable. These data are the basis for continuous improvement activities.
  3. Mutually Reinforcing Activities: Coordination of differentiated activities through an agreed upon plan of action exists.
  4. Continuous Communication: Executive leaders commit to a long term commitment to build trust and work through problems by meeting at least monthly.
  5. Backbone Support Organizations: A separate organization (outside the participating organizations) that has designated staff tasked with the coordination, project management, data management, and facilitation of the collective impact initiative is brought into project.

Why the Majority of the Social Sector is Not Ready for Collective

The conditions of collective impact are very similar to the conditions needed to achieve high performance within in social sector organizations.  Based on the research found in Impact & Excellence, high-performing government and nonprofits have the following elements:

  1. Culture: High-performing organizations have the right leadership and staff to support data-driven decision making. The leaders excel in collaboration, cultivating vision and purpose while directing and measuring the organization’s activities to align with that overall mission. There are internal systems that foster continuous improvement and innovation for ultimate organizational results. All of these things are needed for successful implementation of collective impact.
  2. Clarify Mission: These organizations have a clear mission and vision.  They understand why their organization exists and how they are changing lives and circumstances of those they serve.  With a clear focus on the mission, these organizations develop programs aimed to accomplish this change.  A clear vision is also an element of a successful collective impact initiative.
  3. Capture: Organizations have measurement systems in place that capture how well they are meeting their mission. Again, an element of a successful collective impact initiative.
  4. Communicate: Just as collective impact requires continuous communication, high-performance cultures have systems of communication built into their way of doing things. They share their successes to build new partnerships and raise more money. They use data to educate and bond their staff and stakeholders.
  5. Change/and or celebrate: High-performance measurement cultures use data to celebrate their success. They also make program improvements based on their data which will help them further increase their impact. This process is very similar to the continuous improvement process needed for a successful collective impact initiative.

Based on my research, less than a quarter of social sector organizations have been successful at adopting high-performance measurement cultures.  If organizations are not internally equipped to play at the highest level and reach their organization’s maximum potential.  It is unlikely they are prepared to handle the data-driven and collaborative approach requirements for collective impact.

Just because a football team has a goal to win the National Championship game, the backbone organization behind it, and the stats in place to measure success do not guarantee that they will become that National Champions. The team needs all parts (players, coaches, and fans) to excel at each of their individual roles.  Each stakeholder needs to be operating at peak performance during every single practice and every single game to reach that level of success.

Collective impact is no different.  For lasing success, every collaborative partner of a collective impact initiative must be operating from a place of high-performance to see real results. Prior to launching into collective impact initiatives, organizations should be looking inward to their internal operations to ensure they are ready for the rigorous demands of this process.

Want some help on your journey to high-performance? Looking for an outside entity to be the backbone of your collective impact initiative who is performing at the highest levels in terms of collaboration, data management, project management, and facilitations?  Measurement Resources is here to help! We offer customized workshops and consulting services designed to align your mission, leadership, culture, measures and performance.

Contact us today for your FREE 20-minute strategy session to learn more!