Advancing the Practice of Collective Impact

This post is adapted from our response to Tom Wolff’s editorial, both of which were posted on the Collective Impact Forum's website on May 4, 2016. Our thanks to Tom for starting this conversation.

Five years after writing the initial article on collective impact in Stanford Social Innovation Review, we would like to share some reflections on how our thinking has evolved based on conversations with other practitioners and our own work supporting collective impact efforts.

As documented by this research from Columbia University’s Teachers College, the initial article helped elevate the importance of collaborative cross-sector activity to address social problems. It is difficult to know exactly why the article struck such a resonant chord. Some have told us that the term “collective impact” and the 5 conditions gave them a way to frame the collaborative efforts they’d been doing for decades and enabled them to find and learn from colleagues doing similar work. For others who were newer to comprehensive community change, the construct provided an accessible foundation that allowed them to get started in collaborating in new, cross-sector ways.

Since the initial collective impact article was published, we have grown in appreciation of the many diverse perspectives, voices, and experiences that are deepening the conversation and practice around collective impact. As we and many others have noted, while the frame we articulated in the initial article presented important foundational elements for achieving collective impact, the article was not, in and of itself, a complete and comprehensive playbook for achieving the deep and nuanced work of collaborative change. As a result, the field has benefited from the numerous practitioners and academics who have weighed in since then with additional useful perspectives on dimensions of collective impact that are essential to the work.

Two areas in particular, equity and community engagement, have benefitted from significant contributions by many of the field. Here are just a very few of the recent perspectives on community engagement and equity in collective impact that we have found to be compelling and helpful.

Our own writings on collective impact since the initial article was published have also focused on conveying the additional dimensions that are important to this work. In 2014, we and a number of other collective impact practitioners published Collective Insights for Collective Impact to address what we saw emerging at that time as important implementation dimensions that had not been articulated in the original article. More recently, in collaboration with our partners in the Collective Impact Forum, we published the Collective Impact Principles of Practice to highlight a number of the most critical dimensions of implementation that effective practitioners in the field are identifying as essential to the collaborative change process. Additionally, here are several of our own follow-up publications on the practice of collective impact that explore in depth key dimensions of the work that both we and others have identified:

  • Collective, collaborative change requires a unique form of leadership. “The Dawn of System Leadership,” co-authored by Peter Senge, Hal Hamilton, and John Kania, provides perspective on the leadership capacities needed to catalyze collective leadership in others. FSG and the Collective Impact Forum are continuing to prioritize the topic of leadership in collective impact, building on the work of academics such as Peter Senge, Otto Scharmer, and Ron Heifitz, as well as practitioner based efforts such as the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s program for Results-Based Leadership.
  • Collective impact initiatives function in highly complex contexts in which overreliance on linear approaches to change are likely to fail. In “Embracing Emergence,” we share ideas for how collective impact initiatives can support participants on a journey of embracing an adaptive way of working that requires an iterative process of collective seeing, learning, and doing. Since the process and results of collective impact are emergent rather than predetermined, unforeseen opportunities present new solutions. Our thinking in this space has been deeply informed by complexity and social innovation experts such as Brenda Zimmerman, Frances Westley, Michael Quinn Patton, David Snowden, David Stroh, and many others.
  • To achieve population level change, collective impact initiatives must pursue system and policy change strategies. In FSG’s Guide to Evaluating Collective Impact, we present a theory of change for how collective impact initiatives achieve scale results, and we emphasize systems change as a key lever, providing a number of indicators of systems change to encourage pursuit of such work. Additionally, FSG frequently presents on the difference between systems level strategies and program level strategies in collective impact efforts, and the importance of focusing on the system level to achieve scale change. A July 2014 blog, “What are Strategies,” identifies several categories of systems level strategies that collective impact practitioners can pursue in their work.

It is important to place collective impact (both the initial article and subsequent knowledge and practice development under the collective impact name) in context with the broader, multi-decades movement and evolution around collective, collaborative change.  

As many (including FSG) have noted, the publication of our article 5 years ago was far from the beginning of the movement around comprehensive community change. Neither do we expect it to be the final chapter. As this movement continues to evolve, we look forward to additional contributions that can deepen understanding of how best to practice collective impact in a manner that leads to a more just and equitable world.

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