Collective impact projects are collaborations between nonprofits, government, businesses and communities with the goal of achieving challenging and complicated social objectives. They can succeed in ways that simply aren’t available to individual organizations. But they also require a level of commitment your nonprofit may not be prepared for.
A common cause
Collective impact is more than just collaboration. Its originators describe it as the commitment of important players from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem. Such cross-sector coordination may help nonprofits achieve greater change than isolated interventions by individual groups.
One example is Active Schools, a national collaborative of health, education and corporate partners, including Nike and Campbell Soup Foundation. Together this coalition aims to confront “a nationwide crisis of inactivity” by providing structural support and resources for physical education and activity programs in K-12 schools.
Prerequisites for success
Collective impact adherents typically cite several prerequisites necessary to produce successful initiatives:
- Common agenda. Participants must have a shared vision for change based on a common understanding of the challenge. Everyone doesn’t need to agree on every facet of the problem. But differences of opinion about the problem — and goals for addressing it — must be resolved to prevent division.
- Shared measurement systems. A shared agenda will be of little value unless participants agree on how to measure and report outcomes. All participants must take the same approach to data collection and metrics to foster accountability and facilitate information sharing.
- Mutually reinforcing activities. Stakeholders need to work together, but that doesn’t mean they all must do the same thing. Each participant should be encouraged to harness its strengths in a way that supports and coordinates with the other participants.
- Continuous communication. Trust is critical. But it usually takes time and multiple interactions to develop. So the most effective initiatives keep the lines of communication open and encourage stakeholders to meet in person regularly.
- Backbone organizations. Collective impact requires a separate organization with its own infrastructure to provide the project’s “backbone.” This includes a dedicated staff to plan, manage and support the organization.
Know the risks
Collective impact enables nonprofits and their partners to take on big issues. But before joining a project, understand that you may need to provide substantial human and financial resources, commit to a long-term agenda and put your trust in possibly untested partners. Contact us for help determining whether your organization is prepared for the challenge.