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Collective Impact: A Primer (Part 2)

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Ruth Frances Aston

Ruth Frances Aston

Kelly M. Hannum

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. In part one, the authors provided a general overview of Collective Impact, as well as some things organizations should consider before engaging in collaborative work. 

What are the main criticisms of Collective Impact?

While there are many positive aspects to Collective Impact, there are also some challenges to consider. Such as, how long will it take for stakeholders to ‘get on the same page’ in order to work well together? Do stakeholders trust each other enough to work well together? Do stakeholders have very different perceptions about the issue and/or strongly conflicting ideas about how to approach it? How will the inclusion of non-mainstream approaches influence power dynamics among stakeholders?

aligned-impact-logo-smTom Wolff, author of The Power of Collaborative Solutions: Six Principles and Effective Tools for Building Healthy Communities outlines his concerns in his editorial “Ten Places Where Collective Impact Gets it Wrong”. His ten concerns include, (1) Collective Impact does not address the essential requirement for meaningfully engaging those in the community most affected by the issues; (2) Collective Impact emerges from a top-down business consulting experience and thus is not a community development model; (3) Collective Impact does not include policy change and systems change as essential and intentional outcomes of partnership work; (4) Collective Impact misses the social justice core that exists in many coalitions; (5) Collective Impact is not based on professional and practitioner literature or the experience of the thousands of coalitions that preceded the 2011 article; (6) Collective Impact mislabels their study of a few case examples as “research”; (7) Collective impact assumes that most coalitions are capable of finding the funds to have a well-funded backbone organization; (8) Collective Impact also misses a key role of the Backbone Organization – building leadership; (9) community-wide, multi-sectorial collaboratives cannot be simplified into Collective Impact’s five required conditions, and (10) early available research on Collective Impact calls into question the contribution that it is making to coalition effectiveness.

Vu Le also offered his concerns via his blog Nonprofit with Balls, specifically calling out the frustrations felt by communities of color in one of his posts. In that post he offers the following criticisms; (1) Collective Impact is another example of Columbusing, (2) it perpetuates trickle-down community engagement, (3) backbone organizations become gatekeepers of resources, (4) organizations are forced to align with CI agendas, (5) it creates and maintains the illusion of inclusion, (6) it diverts funding away from direct services, (7) it often doesn’t work, but people are afraid to say so, (8) our feedback and solutions get ignored, and (9) equity gets shoehorned in as an afterthought.

Response to critiques

The concerns raised by Vu Le, Wolff and others have and continue to be discussed in the Collective Impact article series in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

The pioneering authors, Kramer & Kania note that Collective Impact is in reality very rarely attempted. As a result, there is little evidence that has been generated to-date about implementation and effectiveness. Hence there is a strong focus currently on building a community of practice through the Collective Impact Forum.

There are three illuminating arguments in response to the critiques of Collective Impact:

  1. Not all social problems are suited to a Collective Impact initiative (Kania & Kramer, 2011)
  2. The approach to funding often stymies full engagement in Collective Impact (Bartczak, 2014)
  3. The value of capacity building in Collective Impact is under-estimated (Hanleybrown, Kania & Kramer, 2012)

Collective Impact works best and is most appropriate for addressing adaptive (also called complex and/or wicked) problems (see Westley, Zimmerman & Patton, 2006- Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed). Distinct from technical problems, adaptive social issues are those that tend to be loosely defined without a known solution. Accordingly, the response to these problems needs to mirror their characteristics, by being adaptive and responsive to emerging issues which is the founding argument for Collective Impact.

The characteristics of the problems most appropriate for a Collective Impact response presents challenges for resourcing. Recent movements towards venture philanthropy and social entrepreneurship result in initiatives usually focused on isolated impact efforts, where individual organizations work independently to improve specific problems. Often funders of such initiatives also fund Collective Impact initiatives and apply similar expectations of impact towards both initiative efforts. This can result in unstable and short-term funding for Collective Impact initiatives, which can explain why the approach is comparatively rare, and is often not sustained. Funders of Collective Impact initiatives need to understand and appreciate that impact is a long-term shared process.  

Collective Impact initiatives are also expensive; this is not only because initiatives tend to have long timeframes but also because they are often characterized by a significant component of capacity building and network development at all levels. Collective Impact, by definition requires the collective examination of adaptive social problems through a different lens, and the critiquing and re-envisaging existing solutions through a structured process. If stakeholders and organizations do not have the capacity to engage in this process, then efforts need to be invested in developing their capacity. Kania & Kramer argue that there is and should be a component of capacity building in all Collective Impact initiatives, whether this is at the individual level or at the organization level, or whether it is associated with initiative design and problem definition, management, monitoring or evaluation of initiatives. The argument for capacity building is that it can act empower community members to contribute to the collective action, thus reducing power imbalances (Ryan, 2014).

Concluding thoughts

As noted earlier, there are preconditions which can help determine readiness for Collective Impact. These include; (1) influential champion, (2) adequate financial resourcing, and (3) urgency for change. The first condition is the most critical, and the Hanleybrown and authors explain that the champion(s) needs to be able to bring high-level leaders together, and keep them engaged in the efforts as well as focus on the problem. For the second condition, resourcing for a minimum of two to three years should be obtained prior to initiating Collective Impact efforts is advised. Finally, the third condition is establishing public and political will for change, that is ensuring that the problem is on the agenda and that stakeholders care about the problem and want change will establish the foundation for sustained collective action. Of those published examples of ‘successful’ Collective Impact initiatives, there appears a common theme in that the effort started at a ‘crisis point’, where change was seen as urgent and non-negotiable.

The critiques of Collective Impact are justified; however it is important to note that there is a lack of evidence available about comparative effectiveness. While the theoretical foundation for the initiative is well-established, the evidence on how it can be done, and how it effective it can be, is emergent. However, Collective Impact holds great promise, and demonstrates greater potential for change compared with isolated efforts to address our most complex and adaptive social problems.


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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