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Collective Impact Examples from the Field

With the release of FSG’s article on Collective Impact this month, this seemed like an opportune moment to explore some recent collective impact efforts in education and see how they’re faring. Keeping in mind that our research shows that successful collective impact initiatives typically have five conditions that together produce true alignment and lead to powerful results: a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support organizations, let’s see how these concepts play out on the ground.

The Good: Community Center for Education Results launches civic initiative to address the urgent need to improve education in Seattle
The Community Center for Education Results (CCER), backed by The Seattle Foundation, is a great example of what we mean by a backbone support organization. CCER’s goal is to double the number of students in South King County and South Seattle who are on track to graduate from college or earn a career credential by 2020. Led by people who are plugged into the community, CCER is driving toward a common agenda and shared measurement systems for the south Seattle region in the form of a Road Map for Education Results. As a backbone support organization, CCER helps in implementing the Road Map by coordinating the efforts of other partners, but also by providing crucial capacity in areas like data collection and analysis and conducting public awareness campaigns. This effort is still nascent, but is starting off down the right path for a successful collective impact effort.

The Bad: Obama Administration agenda faces new, post-election challenges
The incoming Republican-controlled House of Representatives will pose challenges to the Obama administration’s education agenda. This is not necessarily bad in itself but does provide a good illustration of one of the challenges of collective action: how difficult it is to keep a coalition together, even when it has been successful. Observers have often noted the unusual degree of alignment on the direction of education reform between the Obama administration, the Democratic Congress, several key private foundations and influential education reform organizations, such as Teach for America and New Leaders for New Schools. It was possible to discern a common agenda among these groups, which led to significant legislative activity (the Race to the Top and Investing in Innovation (i3) Fund grants were the most visible emblems of this work). The changes in the next Congress will remove only one of the partners from the collective effort. That will, however, be sufficient to cause major changes to -- or even the scrapping of -- Race to the Top, the effort’s flagship program, revealing the fragility of the entire effort. Partners will always be subject to changes in leadership or operating context which may pull some of them in different directions over time. Organizers of collective impact initiatives have to confront this fragility and either make contingency plans or make progress fast. Preferably both.

The Bold: Promise Neighborhoods encourage collective impact efforts in communities across the country
If you’re looking for fast progress, bold action is often a good way to get it. The Promise Neighborhoods planning grants are boldly trying to recreate the success of the Harlem Children’s Zone in to rebuilding a community so that its children can stay on track through college and go on to success in the job market. This is textbook collective action, especially focused on developing a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, and continuous communication. Grant applications had to bring together a wide range of stakeholders to demonstrate how the community would provide services from early learning to college and career, including programs to improve the health, safety, and stability of neighborhoods, and boost family engagement in student learning. The winning applications reflect deep partnerships among community-based organizations, service providers, schools and districts, colleges and universities, cities, local leaders and others, but even better news is that 300 different communities from 38 states submitted applications, jump-starting a planning process that will no doubt continue in many of them, even though they did not receive a grant. It’s heartening to see the practice of collective action taking off and we look forward to watching all these flowers bloom over the next few years.

Collective impact efforts are gaining steam, but it is still early days. We can look to successful initiatives like Strive in Cincinnati for guidance on what has worked, but we still have a lot to learn about how to keep a diverse group of organizations and stakeholders moving in the same direction. Examples of efforts in difficulty, like the fate of the Obama administration’s education agenda, can teach us as much as triumphant successes, if we observe them carefully and try to understand their lessons.

Jeff Cohen

Managing Director