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Collective Impact: A Primer (Part 1)

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Ruth Frances Aston

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Kelly M. Hannum

Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Kelly M. Hannum and Ruth Frances Aston

This two-part article explores Collective Impact and the criticism around it.

Since being introduced in a 2011 Stanford Social Innovation Review article, Collective Impact has gained traction, as well as criticism, as an approach for tackling the most vexing of our shared, complex challenges. The approach is borne from the belief that isolated efforts toward large-scale shared problems are, at best, minimally effective and that multi-sector collaboration and coordination is needed. Collective Impact is not the first or the only approach for large-scale, multi-sector collaboration for community change, but it is increasingly popular. It has become sexy. It has a forum organized by FSG and the Aspen Institute that includes videos, guides, webinars, and conferences all geared towards connecting and informing those engaging in the approach; often highlighting Collective Impact efforts, including the work of consulting firms who offer Collective Impact services.

aligned-impact-logo-smAt the heart, Collective Impact focuses efforts across sectors towards a shared vision. As the approach evolves, more and more resources are becoming available to gauge readiness, to build awareness, to guide efforts, and to measure impact, etc. For some, Collective Impact offers a path and process for moving their work forwards. However, critiques of the approach have also emerged. If you are wondering is Collective Impact is right for your organization, this article can help you clarify your position. We will briefly describe what Collective Impact is and then outline some concerns related to the approach.

What is Collective Impact?

In a nutshell, Collective Impact is people working across sectors to develop and align efforts around a shared goal related to a shared, complex problem – such as those rooted in education, public health, economic development, community development, social issues, etc.

The approach comprises five core elements:

  1. A Common Agenda
  2. Shared Measures
  3. Mutually Reinforcing Activities
  4. Continuous Communication
  5. Backbone Support

Building a common agenda includes sharing information about the collective challenge(s) in order to see the challenge(s) from multiple perspectives and to understand what is known and what is being done to address it. Then stakeholders establish an agreed upon comprehensive approach for addressing it. The common agenda guides efforts towards the collective shared goal.

Shared measures focus efforts on key outcomes related to the goal, and require the provision of shared data. Having shared measures allows stakeholders to track progress towards as well as the accomplishment of their goal. The data provide a source of input for conversations about how things are going and what seems to be working and what isn’t.

Mutually reinforcing activities are intended to enable stakeholders to take an efficient and holistic approach to tackling the challenge. Coordinating efforts such that there are no gaps and that efforts are aligned in order to achieve the shared goals.

Continuous communication is needed to maintain alignment and sustain the relationships needed to reach goals. Collective impact efforts take years and there is bound to be turnover, competing demands, and differences in perspective that can derail efforts if there is inadequate communication between stakeholders.

Finally, backbone support was initially perceived as a single backbone organization that would serve as a coordinating the various components of Collective Impact. Typically the six functions of a backbone organization include: (1) guiding vision and strategy, (2) supporting aligned activities, (3) establishing shared measurement practices, (4) building public will, (5) advancing policy, and (6) mobilizing funding. But as the approach has evolved, is has become clear that sometimes multiple organizations need to work collectively to perform the backbone support functions.

Are You Ready for Collective Impact?

Collective Impact can be more effective if certain preconditions are in place, such as (1) influential champions who can gather and motivate key stakeholders, (2) the resources to get the work done, and (3) a sense of urgency for working together in new ways to address the challenge (for a self-assessment of readiness see: https://collectiveimpactforum.org/sites/default/files/CI_Readiness_Assessment_Jan_7_2014.pdf). However, even if the community is ready for Collective Impact, you also need to consider whether your organization is? Engaging in collaborative, collective effort requires compromise. Some things to consider include:

  • how well do the goals of the Collective Impact effort align with the goals of your organization?
  • how much flexibility does your organization have in terms of the work it does and how success is measured?
  • how will engaging in Collective Impact influence key sources of support (such as the Board, key funders, etc.)?
  • do you have or can you get the staff needed to contribute to a collective impact effort?

While there are many positive aspects to Collective Impact, there are also some challenges to consider. Part two of this article will explore criticism of Collective Impact.


Ruth Aston is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Program Evaluation, University of Melbourne, Australia and a co-founder of Evaluation for Impact. 

Kelly M. Hannum is the President of Aligned Impact LLC and also serves as a Senior Scholar in the Institute for Community & Economic Engagement at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

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