We’re often asked how we developed the concept of collective impact, which first appeared as a short article in Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2011, and has been discussed and adopted by many people around the world, including the 17,000 members of the Collective Impact Forum.
As social impact consultants who work on a wide range of issues in many sectors around the world, we look for patterns in data, drawing conclusions when the evidence seems consistent and compelling. And as reflective practitioners, we continuously share what we learn, among ourselves, with our partners, and with the field in the form of pragmatic and timely insights. It’s a form of investigation that Donald Shon calls action research:
When someone reflects-in-action, [s/he] becomes a researcher in the practice context. [S/he] is not dependent on the categories of established theory and technique, but constructs a new theory of the unique case. [Their] inquiry is not limited to a deliberation about means which depends on a prior agreement about ends. [S/he] does not keep means and ends separate, but defines them interactively as [s/he] frames a problematic situation. [S/he] does not separate thinking from doing…Because [their] experimenting is a kind of action, implementation is built into [their] inquiry. (Schon, D. A. (1983). The reflective practitioner. New York: Basic Books, p. 68).
This blend of action research and reflection has been present since our founding in 2000, when we began searching for more effective models of creating social change, and it has informed our work on collective impact.
The direct origins of the collective impact framework began in 2004, when we wrote an article with Ron Heifetz at Harvard’s Kennedy School applying his concept of adaptive leadership to the field of philanthropy. The idea that philanthropists might do better by funding a process that lets the people involved in a problem figure out the solutions for themselves—rather than impose the funder’s solution on them—informed our initial thinking about self-directed collaborative work.
In 2007, our leadership team came together to consider the question: What is the single most important obstacle to social progress? After hours of small group discussion, we discovered that we’d all arrived at the same answer—the central problem was the fragmentation of effort. We saw it within the nonprofit sector, and we saw it among corporations and government entities as well. Too many players addressing social issues worked alone, without any coordination within or among the sectors.
With this observation, we realized that wide-spread progress required a significant shift in mindset and behavior from working individually to working collectively. So, from 2007 to 2010 we sought opportunities to understand and foster how these shifts successfully occurred in collective work.
On behalf of the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, we helped NGOs involved in seafood sustainability understand how their work aligned and how to assess their progress collectively. For the Mars Corporation, we began to examine the public, private, and NGO ecosystem that perpetuated poverty among smallholder cocoa farmers in Cote d’Ivoire. We convened a cross-sector community planning process on youth development in North Dakota and comprehensive efforts to create mutually reinforcing activities among numerous players in K-12 education reform in Central Texas and South Seattle. We spent 2010 helping judges, police, probation officers, social workers, school principals, youth, and philanthropy leaders form a common agenda to reform the juvenile justice system in New York State.
During that time we also conducted several research studies. Funding by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation fueled our research on shared measurement systems, as we recognized that neither funders nor grantees could learn from each other effectively when every social program was evaluated against a uniquely customized set of measures. Breakthroughs in Shared Measurement—published in 2009—documented 2 dozen different examples of shared measurement efforts, categorized as simple platforms, comparative performance systems, or what we then called “adaptive learning systems,” which prefigured many elements of our collective impact framework. We first explored the Strive Partnership example (which would later feature prominently in “Collective Impact”) in this report, after our work with a foundation in Cincinnati brought Strive to our attention.
We also researched examples of successful cross-sector collaborations wherever we could find them. Many of those efforts became examples in our original and subsequent articles, such as Shape Up Somerville, the Elizabeth River Project, Communities that Care, Memphis Fast Forward, and the Global Alliance to Improve Nutrition. In each case, we conducted multiple interviews with the leaders, funders, and participants of the projects we studied, reviewed documents, and in some instances conducted site visits.
The combination of our client work and research reinforced for us the necessity of developing a framework for effective cross-sector collaboration. Over 6 months in 2010, we synthesized the key elements of successful collective work we’d seen, and tested our hypotheses with our consulting teams, drawing on their experiences from our many collaborative consulting projects, to vet our evolving ideas. That process led to our original article on collective impact in Stanford Social Innovation Review and the five-part framework it described.
The positive reception of the short article, intended to share our insights in a quick and pragmatic fashion, still surprises us today. But far more important is the utility of the framework, which began to deepen almost immediately. Even while the original article was in pre-publication, we continued our research, authoring 2 more articles in the next 1.5 years for the web version of Stanford Social Innovation Review that brought in many more examples and probed further on the process, structure, and dynamics that enable collective impact to work.
In 2012, in partnership with the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions, FSG created the Collective Impact Forum in order to accelerate and deepen the learning around the practice of effective collective impact in the broader field. This free online forum, which includes a broad set of resources from practitioners across the field as well as convenings and specific communities of practice, has grown to a global membership of over 17,000. In 2013, along with a number of other experienced collective impact practitioners, we published a compendium of pieces on “Collective Insights for Collective Impact,” to further share what the field was learning about the subtler dimensions of the work. In 2014, we published an article on global applications of collective impact.
Most recently, in 2016, we published a set of Collective Impact Principles of Practice because we had learned from the field that crucial issues, especially bringing an equity lens and the importance of community engagement to every aspect of collective impact, were missing from the original framework. This emphasis on principles reflects a movement within the evaluation field that believes positive, long-term change requires more than a static set of “best practices” that fail to take complex dynamics and local context into account. Alongside the Principles of Practice, FSG, the Aspen Forum for Community Solutions, and PolicyLink together published a trilogy of blogs in Stanford Social Innovation Review to bring greater depth and attention to the interplay of equity and collective impact.
We expect the framework to continue to evolve as the Collective Impact Forum and other knowledge partners capture and share the aggregated learnings of practitioners around the world. And, we hope to extend and refine the concept much more in 2017, as we are presently assembling an advisory board and hiring a third-party researcher to conduct a rigorous study of the lessons learned and results achieved by a wide range of collective impact efforts across the country. We look forward to sharing those results with the field and collectively learning from them.