Collective impact is a concept that has resonated with many in the field over the years since we first wrote about it in 2011. The 5 conditions—common agenda, shared measurement, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support—provide a helpful framework for practitioners looking to bring coordination among actors tackling large-scale social problems. This post addresses 3 of the common misunderstandings we have seen in the field about how collective impact works in practice.
One major misconception is that collective impact is a straightforward process, or a “formula” for achieving social change. In other words, if you put the 5 conditions in place and follow a step-by-step process you will achieve collective impact. While each of the 5 conditions is important, every collective impact initiative is unique in how these conditions are implemented.
In addition, collective impact is as much about the relationships and trust among the people and organizations involved as it is about the 5 conditions. It is ultimately about enabling adaptive, collective problem-solving. As the saying goes, “Progress moves at the speed of trust.” Oversimplifying what collective impact is can lead to the assumption that it is easy to implement and will lead to quickly seen results. It can sometimes take years, or decades, to achieve the large scale change that collective impact efforts seek.
A second misconception is around the role of the backbone for a collective impact initiative. There is sometimes the belief that a backbone organization sets the agenda for the collaborative and holds the “power” for the group’s decisions. In reality, the backbone should be playing a facilitative, servant-leader role—guiding the decisions of the collaborative, based on the expertise and input of a cross-sector steering committee and input from a broad range of partners and community members.
A third misconception is that collective impact efforts divert significant funds from existing programs and organizations to the supporting infrastructure (backbone support). While it is true that there are additional costs to operating a collective impact initiative—specifically those of the backbone support, the design and implementation of a shared measurement approach, and convening / meeting costs—the overall costs of the collective impact infrastructure are typically quite small when compared to the overall resources (public and private) that the initiative is working to influence and improve.
This post was adapted from content that originally appeared on Generosity, a magazine that provides insight and inspiration for philanthropic funders at all levels.