Collective impact initiatives are growing among not-for-profits. Such initiatives are about more than collaboration. They represent the commitment of a group of organizations to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem. This group can include the nonprofits themselves, government agencies, businesses and constituent communities. Should your nonprofit participate in collective impact?
Adherents of collective impact typically cite five requirements that together promote an initiative’s success:
1. A common agenda. Participants must have a shared vision for change based on a common understanding of their goals and the problem. Everyone doesn’t have to agree on every facet of the problem, but differences must be resolved to preempt splintered efforts.
2. A backbone. Collective impact requires a separate organization with its own infrastructure. This provides a “backbone” for the project. Because participants alone aren’t likely to have the extra resources needed to handle all logistical and administrative details, the entity needs its own dedicated staff.
3. Agreed-upon metrics. Participants should decide how success will be measured and reported. Each member of the group must take the same approach to data collection and metrics to ensure the continued alignment of efforts, foster accountability and facilitate information sharing.
4. Working to your strengths. Collective impact depends on stakeholders working together in an overarching plan. But that doesn’t mean they all must do the same thing. Rather, each participant should pursue the activities at which it excels, in a way that both supports and coordinates with those of fellow participants.
5. Meeting regularly. Perhaps the biggest challenge to collective impact is the need for trust among stakeholders. This grows gradually by meeting regularly. Over time, participants share information and solve problems and learn to recognize and appreciate their individual roles and their common motivation.
Collective impact programs generally are too complicated and unpredictable to evaluate on outcomes alone. Instead, look at your initiative holistically and consider all parts of the puzzle. For example, how effective is the initiative’s change-making process, including its structure and operations? How are influencers of the targeted issues changing and helping to further progress toward ultimate goals?
Consider, too, the initiative’s stage. An early-stage evaluation might focus more on structure and operations, while a later-stage assessment may look at progress toward goals.
Consider your situation
If your nonprofit is thinking about joining a collective action initiative, make sure the group is set up to follow the five requirements listed above. Also, make sure you have the resources necessary to participate. We can help evaluate your situation.