Collective Impact: The Right Conditions for Systems Change

Photo from Flickr/DubbingHammer

Photo from Flickr/DubbingHammer

Have you heard of Collective Impact ?  If you’re currently involved in any kind of large-scale, community-focused systems change effort, chances are good that you have.  Collective Impact is a compelling framework for real systemic change, made popular after this article was published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2011.  Collective Impact promotes addressing complex social issues (think child obesity or domestic violence or homelessness) through a very prescribed kind of collaboration—including requirements that it be cross-sector, carefully structured and well-supported. If you’re unfamiliar with this framework and want to learn more, I highly recommend reading both their first article and their follow-up article published in 2012.

Collective Impact includes five conditions for success:

  1. A Common Agenda
  2. A Shared Measurement System
  3. Mutually Reinforcing  Activities
  4. Continuous Communication
  5. Backbone Support Organization

I think that the folks who developed the Collective Impact framework nailed it as far as identifying the minimum essential (and challenging!) conditions required for sustainable success.  Not surprisingly, each of the conditions is aligned with the principles and sensibilities of systems thinking.

The first four conditions all have an implicit appreciation of relationships—an orientation to the whole rather than separate pieces of a system.  And each of them encourages that participants take on a systems view.

  1. Developing a common agenda helps different agencies and organizations see themselves as parts of a larger system
  2. Establishing  shared measuring system among organizations allows for apples-to-apples measurements across that system, further reducing ‘silo mentality’.
  3. Mutually reinforcing activities require that the whole group develop a big-picture understanding of the interdependent activities within a system.  This can bring to light not only the service gaps and duplications, but also an understanding of system delays and possibilities of sub-optimizing a particular program—which can lead to helpful conversations about what to do about them.
  4. The continuous communication fuels the all-important need to keep the parts connected through information and feedback.

The fifth and final condition is having a backbone support organization: an entity whose primary responsibility is to make sure that all other conditions are being met.  Backbone organizations are in charge of tracking both ‘The Forest’ and ‘The Trees’: they convene meetings, handle data, and keep communication flowing.  Such a role is usually seen as a luxury, unaffordable for most projects in nonprofit and government sectors.  Having a backbone organization as a required condition represents a shift in mental models about what’s needed for successful, systemic change: a bold and necessary move.


6 responses »

  1. I’m excited to read the two articles! I wonder about how leadership shows up in this approach. It’s clear to me that we’re talking about adaptive challenges, and that additional learning could be needed to support all five conditions. So I particularly approach the overlay of systems thinking that you have provided. Perhaps one expectation might be that leadership shows up in the backbone support organization. And, given the complex issues of interest, my guess is that leaders are needed to make each of the conditions take shape. Now, on to the articles.

    • Thanks, Steve. I’ve been mulling on your point about how leadership shows up in Collective Impact, and agree with you–from my experience as a staffer in a Backbone Organization–that leadership is necessary for each of the five conditions. I’m currently involved with a group in Pierce County interested in deepening and solidifying the different Collective Impact principles in change initiatives already happening. Even early in the process I’m seeing different kinds of leadership spring up as people make sense of the ideas coming up and figure out what’s next. People are convening conversations, offering creative, ‘what if?’ ideas and sharing what’s already known; are following up with suggested action items, and are acknowledging that we don’t know all the answers, and need to learn together. Happily, this is leadership happening from all levels of accountability (not just directors and managers) within a variety of organizations (not just the heavy hitters). It’s very promising.

      • Reading your reply to my comment helped me notice an error in my comment…I meant to type “I particularly appreciate the overlay of systems thinking”.

  2. Communities, social networks and social movements are looking for collective impact, where organizations collaborate to make a substantial difference on a large-scale social issue. Yet often, initiatives grounded in shared passions bog down as we seek meaningful ways to bring people together to develop creative, effective results. What if these initiatives were prototyped system-wide by engaging large numbers of stakeholders? How will they hang together long enough to have collective impact? “Collective Impact Containers” create the infrastructure to support dialogue, strategy, data mining and resourcing. Join us as we bring together the diverse interests, viewpoints and strengths of conference participants in a Disruptive Inquiry to co-create the criteria for successful Collective Impact Containers.

    • I think that there are many of us who share the belief that some sort of ‘container’ to ‘hold’ conversation and relationships is essential to long-term change initiatives such as Collective Impact. My experience has been that the Backbone Organization is critical to help the rest of the initiative “hang together long enough”–through convening meetings, sending out regular communication, sharing data widely, and remaining optimistic.

      That said, a Disruptive Inquiry for Collective Impact Containers sounds intriguing. Where can someone go to learn more?

      Thanks for the comment!

  3. Pingback: Embracing Emergence « Living Systems Change

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