Responding to Collective Impact’s Unintended Consequences

Recently, Richard Patton, Executive Director of Vision for Children at Risk (VCR) posted a thoughtful response to collective impact based on his experiences in St. Louis. At FSG, where we define collective impact as the commitment of a group of cross-sector actors to a common agenda to solve a complex social problem, we believe this tempered response makes great sense. We agree with Richard that, while communities shouldn’t be discouraged from trying to engage in collective impact efforts, they must do so thoughtfully, systematically and in recognition of the hard work it takes. When this doesn’t happen, the unintended consequences are indeed severe. As we’ve written about here and here, this is tough but deeply rewarding and impactful work when done well.

Having discussed Richard’s great blog post with members of our team who are deeply engaged with collective impact, I want to share some of our reactions:

  • Many of us strongly agree with the premise that the excitement for collective impact is creating the unintended consequence of new isolated impact, as different organizations / coalitions compete to assert their own version of collective impact. Indeed, the author’s beef is not with collective impact and the movement, but with the behavior of some fellow leaders in St Louis. In our work, we see this unintended consequence happening at both the local and national levels.
  • Richard provides a great example of the rush to do collective impact by multiple groups in the same community focused on similar issues without taking the time to navigate the politics and get to a single effort. This layering effect doesn’t result in better process or better outcomes, but rather, confuses things dramatically. In a similar vein, we’re also seeing a rush to be the “backbone” organization because it is suddenly sexy, even if the capacity isn’t necessarily there (or the funding, for that matter).
  • His post also raises the interesting question of how you manage multiple collective impact efforts in one community – even if they are legitimately focused on different issues. Memphis Fast Forward is the best example we’ve seen of this, where efforts around health, public safety, workforce development, and others come together under one umbrella collective impact initiative. Our teams are also learning a lot about this from our work with the Greater Cincinnati Foundation looking at multiple backbones and collective impact efforts in Cincinnati, and we’ll share more in the coming weeks about what we’re learning here.

We’re heartened that Richard hasn’t given up on the idea of collective impact, but is searching for the St. Louis leader who can bring it all together, and we remain convinced that collective impact, when done well and with rigor, can provide a disciplined approach to solving large-scale social problems.

What do you think? We would love to hear from you!


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