United the Collective Impact Way

United Ways have been playing an important role in communities, serving as volunteer-led, nonprofit organizations, working for over 125 year in issues such as education, health, and poverty—all issues well aligned with a collective impact approach. With recent developments of Collective Impact many United Way local chapters have started playing a more active role in collective impact initiatives, either as a backbone organization, partner organization, or advocate for the idea.

Though the name “collective impact” might be new, several United Ways have been practicing collective impact principles for quite some time. Take the United Way of Greater Milwaukee who served as the backbone organization of a collective impact effort in Milwaukee aiming to reduce teen pregnancy, a leading cause of poverty. Highlighted in a recent case study, the local United Way chapter had staff members “coordinating work across the five sub-committees of the effort, maintaining and updating the roadmap and logic model for the effort, creating agendas, handling public relations and providing talking points.” The United Way “supported these activities in-kind out of its own full-time staff, supplementing with interns, fellows and volunteers when needed.” The effort has seen a 31% decrease in the teen birth rate since 2006, with births dropping to 36 per thousand teenage girls.

The United Way of Southern Cameron County has been serving as the backbone organization of the MDC and Bill & Melinda Gates’ Partners for Postsecondary Success initiative in Brownsville, TX. The initiative aims to develop a high-capacity, ongoing community partnership focused on collective impact to improve postsecondary outcomes for the Brownsville community. The United Way dedicates CEO time, as well as a full-time coordinator for coordinating the work of the many partners organized into 4 different taskforces. While work is still in the early stages, the partnership has already seen quick-wins such as getting free transportation for getting students to Early College High Schools, who otherwise would not be able to attend.

Many other United Way chapters around the U.S. are engaging in collective impact. The United Way of Greater Cincinnati has been the backbone of an early childhood initiative, Success by 6. I’ve also found examples of emerging collective impact involving United Ways in Salt Lake communities, Central Carolinas, Greater Triangle region, Greater Twin Cities, L.A., Bay Area, Peel Region, Central Maryland, King County, and the Lakes Region. The types of activity and involvement in collective impact of these United Ways varies, with some United Ways focusing on becoming a backbone organization; others focusing on being a contributing partner to an initiative; others playing a community engager role; and still others hosting collective impact conferences and events. It is encouraging and inspiriting to see so many United Ways taking in a spirit of collective impact and engaging with their communities in deeper ways. We encourage other United Ways to explore collective impact occurring within their own communities. For those considering playing a backbone organization role, we encourage you to review the key activities a backbone provides to an initiative and consider staffing and skill needs to succeed as a backbone. Playing the role of a backbone can be demanding and the qualities to become a successful backbone are unique. Not all United Ways can yet or perhaps even should take on this role as it requires a significant shift from the model in which most United Ways function today.

Apart from functioning as a backbone, playing other roles is no less important and, for some United Ways, may be a better fit with their strengths. For those who are still looking to further learn about the role of a backbone organization, check out FSG’s new blog series in SSIR on the topics of measuring the progress of backbones based on FSG’s work in Cincinnati.

Finally, we’d love to hear your stories of other United Ways taking action in collective impact in your communities! What role have you seen your United Way playing in collective impact? If you are a United Way—what challenges have you run up against in engaging in collective impact?

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