The Power of a Name

What’s in a Name?

In the case of “collective impact,” apparently a lot.

Last year, FSG coined the term “collective impact” in an eponymous Stanford Social Innovation Review article that described its 5 key practices. These highly structured practices enable broad cross sector coalitions of funders, nonprofits, companies and government agencies to work together effectively to make progress on large scale social problems.

The response to this article has been extraordinary. Around the world people are talking about collective impact, holding conferences, starting initiatives. Major funders and nonprofit organizations have told us that they are changing their entire approach in order to embrace this concept. And leaders of numerous organizations in both the developed and developing worlds have consistently expressed to us that the language of collective impact has given them the words and rationale to explain to their boards and partners what they had been trying to do for years.

In short, we are seeing the power of a name to inspire and shift people’s thinking of what’s possible. Just like “venture philanthropy” and “impact investing,” the language of collective impact has created a global platform for building knowledge and inspiring a new way of working. People around the world who were doing collective impact independently have discovered that they are part of a community. Until now, they had no consistent way to describe their approach, no examples of success to substantiate their belief that this was a better way to work, no ability to learn from the thousands of others who were engaged in similar efforts without knowing it. All of a sudden, the experience that each person was slowly building up in isolation has become a field in which knowledge can grow exponentially. The name has helped foster a movement.

At FSG, we are committed to studying and promoting this movement. We believe that collective impact is a more powerful way to solve social problems than the isolated initiatives on which the nonprofit sector has focused for so long. We are working to launch nearly a dozen initiatives across a wide range of social problems including education, health, poverty, substance abuse and juvenile justice. We have also pursued deeper research, collecting dozens of examples of collective impact initiatives from around the world, deepening our understanding of what makes them succeed, and publishing additional resources to share our learnings.

Yet, while FSG is deeply committed to doing all we can to support communities and leaders in catalyzing collective impact, we are also acutely aware that if collective impact is truly to flower as a movement, we – FSG – can’t own it. If the world is to make progress against the massive and urgent problems that cause so much pain and despair, we need thousands of collective impact initiatives. FSG is not — and cannot be — the only organization with the commitment and expertise to launch collective impact initiatives. We are therefore placing the name and concept of “collective impact” in the public domain where it belongs.

By leaving collective impact in the public domain rather than branding it as a proprietary FSG term, our hope is that we avoid the proliferation of synonyms that can only serve to confuse and weaken the power of this movement. At the same time, all of us who are committed to collective impact have a responsibility to protect its meaning, so that the name continues to stand for a very specific set of highly structured practices. If collective impact becomes only one of many competing names, or a ubiquitous but meaningless catch phrase for any type of collaboration, all its power will be lost. Instead, we welcome the opportunity to work together with all those who recognize the power of collective impact to spread and deepen this movement.

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