Social change doesn’t come easy.

The necessary change requires a hard look at the deep, systemic problems on the behavioral, economic, and political levels, among others.

The complexity alone can be mind-boggling and overwhelming for an organization, with roadblocks and red-tape at almost every corner.

Many organizations who are pushing for social change(usually non-profits), may feel like they’re fighting an uphill battle.

So they continue to work through a siloed, isolated approach.

However, there is a specific type of approach that has been seen to show success in some communities.

This approach is called collective impact.

What is collective impact, you might ask? Well, below we’re going to explain what it is and how organizations can adopt this kind of approach when aiming for social impact.

What Is Collective Impact?

Collective impact involves the solving of a specified social problem through a cross-sector, all-encompassing agenda set by a committee of like-minded leaders.

These leaders span across the public and private sectors, from nonprofits, private organizations, and even government institutions. Together they help each other solve one, singular problem.

This is normally observed in the nonprofit sector, where burecreautic bottlenecks, red-tape, administrative bloat, and unsustainability can hamper an individual organization’s results.

How is This Different From Garden-Variety Collaboration?

Collective impact attempts to address the issue of operational bloat and bottlenecks by streamlining efforts, reducing redundancy among organizations, and keeping everyone accountable. This ultimately increases total impact by allowing multiple organizations to tackle a single problem from multiple perspectives.

This is important in avoiding many of the blind spots and roadblocks individual organizations face when they try to tackle complex problems.

Key Factors to Collective Impact

According to John Kania & Mark Kramer, who both coined the term in their pivotal paper, the main key factors to achieving collective impact include the following: a common agenda, shared measurements systems, reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support organizations.

Common Agenda

The most important factor is to ensure that there is a shared vision among the participants. Without this guiding vision, fragmentation, splintering, and conflict can occur and will cause an implosion before any lasting impact is made.

This is easier said than done, as many organizations who fight for the same cause, have slight variations in their approaches.

It’s these slight differences that, while on the surface don’t seem to have much of an impact, but on an industry as a whole, it is causing splintering and redundancy in many cases.

This halts any sort of forward progress or momentum. These differences need to be addressed and hashed out if there is to be any kind of progress.

Any differences, however slight, need to be discussed and resolved amongst the collective. This can prove to be a difficult but necessary step.

Finding the commonalities that can be agreed upon and creating a grand vision out of that can help steer everyone towards change.

However, understand that there will continue to be cycles of agreement and disagreement throughout these stages.

Shared Measurement Systems

Once a vision for the collective is established, there need to be meaningful measurements put in place to track what will be measured and reported as progress.

What are the key performance indicators, and how will they be tracked and measured?

This will require a level of transparency that organizations and companies are not used to: showing their successes and their failures, sometimes to their competitors.

Across tens or hundreds of organizations, the collection and parsing of meaningful data may look impossible at first.

But advances in big data, machine learning, and artificial intelligence systems can be a pivotal tool in parsing through large amounts of data, providing clarity and insight to the collective.

It can also reduce costs while increasing efficiency in the long run. We wrote about this in a previous post and showed how data can provide invaluable insights.

The agreed-upon metrics can then help provide a daily or weekly form of accountability across all participants.

Over time, those who are overperforming on metrics can help and guide others in the collective in the form of best practices.

Documentation can standardize and streamline these best practices as an operating manual, which can then be released to others in the industry, furthering the progress of the industry as a whole.

Another benefit to having clear metrics is this frees each and every participant organization to achieve it in their own way, as long as they are hitting those agreed upon metrics.

Mutually Reinforcing Activities

The diversity of the group is paramount to success. There needs to be a mutual synergy with those who decide to participate.

There are multiple causes to complex, social issues, and ideally, it would make sense to partner with organizations that tackle these causes effectively already.

The key to collective impact is not only to reduce redundancy but also to allow for activities by the participants to benefit and build upon the group as a whole.

A coordinated, concerted effort of attack from different angles and perspectives, with each organization handling a specialized task best suited to them, is the goal of collective impact.

On the other hand, uncoordinated, redundant action taken from individual organizations who exist in a vacuum and see every organization as a roadblock is only hurting the desired progressive social change.

Continuous Communication

Communication and trust are key to allowing for cross-sector organizations to coexist and thrive.

Trust among private corporations, government agencies, and nonprofits does not come easy.

Egos need to be checked at the door. Empathy and understanding the interests of every organization involved will need to be checked on a continuous basis.

Open communication and transparency require multiple years of face time, partnerships, motivation, and focus. Time will allow each organization to come to terms with what everyone brings to the table, what is in it for them, and how others can benefit.

They also must come to terms with the fact that based on the agreed-upon common agenda and the objective metrics from data insights, the best possible solution will not favor any one organization, including their own.

Naturally, bias, favoritism, and self-interest will rear its ugly head in many cases, and this is where the fifth piece of the puzzle fits in: the backbone support organization.

Backbone Support Organization

This is the part of the organization that includes a dedicated staff that is completely separate from the organizations who are participating. They’ll help manage, plan and support the collective by offering resources, knowledge, and facilitation.

This can include communications, facilitation and technology support, any sorting of data collection or reporting needed, and logistical and administrative functions.

So that’s one aspect of the running the initiative, to ensure that everything runs smoothly in the background, like a well-oiled machine.

They’ll be in charge of holding meetings, collecting data, connecting organizations with each other, and getting them comfortable with each other so the initiative can move forward.

They may even assist in finding financial support. Nothing is strictly out of bounds for the backbone support organization, as long as it is something that is progressing the initiative.

The other important part of this support organization is building a culture.

Building a culture that encourages sharing failures, learning lessons, and embracing transparency.

Ultimately organizations are people, and in any relationship, there will be fights amongst one another. The backbone support will need to support and resolve any sort of conflict.

Open and honest communication in the form of conflict resolution and support is absolutely paramount to the success of the initiative.

Isolation Isn’t The Answer

When it comes to social change on a global scale, organizational isolation isn’t the answer. Effectiveness has been seen in a few initiatives, like the Strive project and The Elizabeth River project, which both required coordinated efforts between government, private, and non-profits to have a positive impact on their respective communities.

There is evidence that this approach can work, and the power of a common agenda that brings together different organizations across sectors and industries will be required in this ever-changing world that will only grow in complexity.

Get Involved

Hopefully, we’ve answered the question(what is collective impact?) and given you a good overview of the keys to it(common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, and a backbone support organization).

So what does all this have to do with us?

UP is a collective impact organization containing over 175 institutions focused on providing better educational opportunities for the youth of San Antonio communities.

We’ve used the above approach to build out our organization and emphasize the use of data to determine where the opportunities for change in San Antonio are.

If you’re interested in getting involved, please don’t hesitate to reach out and see what kind of impact you’ll be able to make.