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Response to 'Rethinking Collective Impact' 

This blog is a response to Emmett Carson's Huffington Post Impact blog 'Rethinking Collective Impact'

Emmett Carson is right to caution against assuming that collective impact is a panacea for all that ills us in the social sector. However, my FSG colleagues -- John Kania, Mark Kramer, and Fay Hanleybrown-- and I do believe that collective impact, when skillfully managed under the right circumstances, has great potential to achieve greater social progress at scale. For this reason collective impact merits attention as an important model for achieving social and environmental change.

In his stated caution around the adoption of collective impact, Emmett offers a number of assumptions that are not consistent with our research and experience with respect to how collective impact plays out in communities. In contributing to the on-going dialogue about collective impact, we’d like to clarify a number of areas where Emmett’s diagnosis strays from our own observations.

Emmett observes that, under collective impact efforts, funders cede control to all others. Our experience runs counter to this observation. Collective impact does require long term, flexible and open-ended support to succeed. However, this does not mean that funders are absent from the table or risk seeing their funding used in ways that are inconsistent with their missions. In fact, funders typically play a critical role in collective impact, and are often the key catalysts and conveners for bringing together a diverse group of stakeholders around an issue, in addition to being active participants in the governance bodies and working groups of collective impact initiatives. These funders are deeply involved in sharing their wisdom and helping to guide the initiative.

By supporting a collective impact effort that allows multiple stakeholders to come together around addressing a specific issue and clear measures of success, funders are able to significantly increase their leverage beyond a handful of grantees. Participants in a collective impact initiative -- including funders -- must begin with an agreement on the goals they are trying to achieve. It is only the specific programs that are undertaken to reach that shared goal in which unanticipated ideas and solutions emerge. It is also important to note that participating in a collective impact effort does not imply that individual funders must support every activity that the group comes up with. Like other stakeholders in the effort, funders can support activities that align with their specific mission and approach.

Emmett also expresses concern that collective impact efforts cede vision and direction to non profits, at the detriment of capitalizing on funder knowledge. Importantly, collective impact efforts are neither about funder control or non profit control. Collective impact efforts focus on bringing together multiple perspectives of informed stakeholders to create better solutions. Rather than rely only on the wisdom of any single individual -- whether that individual be a non profit leader, a foundation program officer, city mayor, or corporate CEO -- collective impact efforts have seen virtue in bringing multiple people together across sectors and engaging them in finding and implementing solutions that no-one of them fashions alone. Additionally, there is an added benefit in that those who need to implement solutions are more willing to do so if they come up with the solutions themselves.

Emmett also questions how collective impact initiatives manage to stay together despite the challenges, turnover, and different views. But the fact is, that, while many historical collaborations have fallen apart after only a few years, we have observed multiple collective impact efforts that have great staying power. Our and others’ research includes a number collective impact efforts of a decade duration or more. The opportunity to see measurable progress on a formerly intractable social issue, and to work together toward a common goal, seems to be incentive enough to hold people at the table.

Emmett also finds concern with the fact that different nonprofits may have different approaches to solving the same problem -- he cites two groups opposed to teenage pregnancy, one of which promotes abstinence and the other birth control. This in fact could be a problem if multiple approaches are needed. It is important to clarify that collective impact efforts are not about reaching agreement on one single approach to achieving progress. Every collective impact effort encompasses multiple levers for change, and each participating organization engages with the key levers it knows best. It is highly likely that a collective impact effort to reduce teen pregnancy would pursue both paths cited by Emmett, as well as several others involving parents, schools, religious leaders, and more. What is emphasized, however, is evidence of effectiveness against measures that the group has mutually agreed to. The approaches that fail to gain traction tend to fall away, something that doesn't always happen in the nonprofit sector of today.

It is important to note that nothing about collective impact undermines the diversity of approaches in the nonprofit sector. It does require, however, that nonprofit organizations, funders, businesses and government agencies actively work together from a common base of facts and a shared set of goals. Organizations seeking social change – whether non profits, foundations, governments or business – can often become convinced of the rightness of their own approach, at the exclusion of all other approaches. We see this as a significant barrier to the sector achieving lasting change at scale.

FSG and Grantmakers for Effective Organizations will be co-hosting a webinar on September 25th that goes into greater depth on the critical role of funders in collective impact, and we welcome continued dialogue on this important topic. Despite the fact that some collective impact efforts will fail (in fact, no approach to complex social change is guaranteed to succeed 100% of the time), we continue to believe this approach holds great potential for large-scale systems change.

Emily Malenfant

Former Chief Administrative Officer, FSG