Collective Impact: A Game Changing Model for the Social Sector

One of the key distinctions between a for profit organization and a not-for-profit one is that the former is focused on increasing shareholder value while the latter is focused on creating community value or impact. Creating lasting impact in the social sector, let alone measuring that impact, is one of the biggest challenges facing nonprofits these days. Past practices often focused on measuring outputs as opposed to measuring outcomes. A new model called Collective Impact is rapidly changing how nonprofits consider their work.

The idea of Collective Impact (CI) made waves when the Stanford Social Innovation Review published the article “Collective Impact” in its Winter 2011 edition. It was then followed up with a more in depth article, “Channeling Change: Making Collective Impact Work,” in 2012. In the first article, the authors suggest that the social sector, funders in particular, need to shift their focus from one of isolated impact to that of collaborative impact. In order for CI to be successful, the following five conditions must be present:

  1. Collaborating organizations must create a common agenda.
  2. These organizations must also share a measurement system that tracks indicators of success.
  3. Stakeholders must work together in mutually reinforcing activities.
  4. They must also engage in continuous communication.
  5. There must be a backbone support organization that coordinates, supports, and facilitates the collective process.

The second article outlines more specifics about implementation of the CI model. In particular, it outlines the following three phases:

  1. Phase I: Initiate Action
  2. Phase II: Organize for Impact
  3. Phase III: Sustain Action and Impact

Within those three phases, the follow components for success need to be continually assessed:

  • Governance and Infrastructure
  • Strategic Planning
  • Community Involvement
  • Evaluation and Improvement

While the social sector has been buzzing about CI, it’s important to note that it is not the answer to every nonprofit’s dream. Here are some questions to ask to determine whether or not CI is the right approach for your particular situation:

  • Is this a complex problem, that is, one that can only be solved by involving multiple stakeholders?
  • Do we have the capacity to create the five conditions of Collective Impact?
  • Do we have community support on this issue? Will we be able to engage stakeholders successfully in this effort?
  • Can we find backing for the backbone support organization?

If you’re convinced that CI is the right approach, then here are some questions to ask about your group’s readiness for each of the three phases listed above:

Phase I:

  • Governance and Infrastructure: Who would be willing partners and do they agree that Collective Impact would be effective?
  • Strategic Planning: What data do we currently have and what more do we need in order to assess current reality? Is this feasible?
  • Community Involvement: Are stakeholders receptive to this idea? How well networked are they?
  • Evaluation and Improvement: What currently exists for measuring impact? Do we have the capacity and the systems to track progress?

Phase II:

  • Governance and Infrastructure: What do we need in place for infrastructure and governance in order to keep this effort moving forward? What are we all willing to let go of with respect to control, turf, etc. and what is non-negotiable?
  • Strategic Planning: What have we identified as potential common goals? Is that supported by the data? Does that align with all the partner organizations’ missions?
  • Community Involvement: Who are all the stakeholders and how can we fully engage them in this process?
  • Evaluation and Improvement: Do we all agree on what the best measures for impact are? How will we track it and communicate progress?

Phase III:

  • Governance and Infrastructure: What is working well? What more do we need to do to improve governance and infrastructure?
  • Strategic Planning: How do we stay on track with implementation? How do we deal with setbacks or unanticipated problems? How do we communicate progress?
  • Community Involvement: How do we continue to engage stakeholders? What does meaningful engagement look like over time?
  • Evaluation and Improvement: What are our measurement systems telling us? How do we know when we need to course correct?

While these questions only touch the surface of implementing a CI effort, they will help create the thinking needed to dig deeper as the process evolves. Collective Impact is a practice – something that will deepen over time as you become more skilled, and with that, you will see greater impact.

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