There’s a lot of hype of late around the ‘collective impact’ framework for collaborative problem-solving initiatives – lots of prominent folk seem to have embraced it, such as Dawn O’Neil who was recently the CEO of Lifeline Australia and beyondblue, and is a Member of the Order of Australia for services to the community and mental health. (I recently saw Dawn give a presentation on collective impact and she has clearly whole-heartedly embraced the approach). But is there any substance to it?
In this post I draw on the original article on collective impact published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. In brief ‘collective impact’ is the “long-term commitments by a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem”. If you think that this sounds pretty much like a stock standard definition of collective action, you’re right. Nonetheless, they contend that collective impact initiatives “are distinctly different”. They assert that:
Unlike most collaborations, collective impact initiatives involve a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants.
Not convinced yet? Neither am I. Additionally, five conditions are proposed that – it is claimed – “produce true alignment and lead to powerful results”:
- A common agenda (i.e. a shared problem definition and vision for change);
- Shared measurement systems;
- Mutually reinforcing activities;
- Continuous communication; and
- Backbone support organizations providing facilitation and enabling greater coordination.
A couple of additional “ingredients” are discussed – significant financial investment, funders (e.g. philanthropic bodies) willing to support longer-term exploratory processes (rather than quick fixes), and ‘enlightened’ funders who “follow four practices: take responsibility for assembling the elements of a solution; create a movement for change; include solutions from outside the nonprofit sector; and use actionable knowledge to influence behavior and improve performance”.
The most original aspect is probably the concept of a “backbone” support organisation. They argue that “creating and managing collective impact requires a separate organization and staff with a very specific set of skills to serve as the backbone for the entire initiative”; such an organisation is argued to be necessary for achieving coordination. Moreover, “the expectation that collaboration can occur without a supporting infrastructure” is argued to be “one of the most frequent reasons why it fails”.
So what, then, is ‘collective impact’ – a “framework”, a change creation methodology, a mindset (as stated in this article), a theory of large-scale change, or a restatement of the commonly-held idea that we can achieve more if we pool our efforts, or…? The latter half of the article is really more of a critique of funding practices in the non-profit and social sectors than a coherent set of change practices.
‘Collective impact’ is not a theory of change. At best it articulates some high-level propositions that:
- Differences in problem definition and goal-definition “splinter” efforts and consequently undermine impact and large-scale social change efforts;
- Common indicators and common systems for reporting performance and measuring outcomes will “enable participants to hold each other accountable and learn from each other”;
- Effective collective action requires coordination of differentiated activities through “a mutually reinforcing plan of action. Each stakeholder’s efforts must fit into an overarching plan if their combined efforts are to succeed”;
- Regular meetings over a long periods of time (e.g. several years) are required to develop a shared vocabulary, trust, and “enough experience with each other to recognize and appreciate the common motivation behind their different efforts”; and
- Without a resourced “backbone” support organisation there will be insufficient coordination.
Each of these propositions can be critically interrogated. For starters they not “social laws” and are more contingent and conditional than they’re presented to be. Some problems could benefit from diverse approaches rather than seeing this as problematically “splintering” efforts. There are many ways that coordination could be achieved with or without a “backbone” organisation. And so on.
So… why is everyone talking about it?
In brief, I’m not sure.
Perhaps it is the name; which helps to create a sense of agency? Perhaps it’s the sense, or reminder, that collectively we might have more impact than independently? Other than that there doesn’t seem to be much to it. Or perhaps the popularity is an expression of a deeper frustration that some people in advocacy and activist / NGO groups feel when such groups fight and work against one another?
What’s missing from ‘collective impact’?
In brief, lots. But here’s a few initial thoughts:
Consideration of when the approach might be more / less suitable: for example one critique, entitled ‘Collective Impact or Coordinated Blindness’, argues that proponents haven’t adequately considered what types of problem are more/less suitable for such an approach. They argue that for “when it comes to complicated social problems like education” the problem of scale and coordination “might be the least of our worries” and – in such circumstances – call for more competition, and less coordination.
Consideration of power relations: Paul Schmitz writes that “the process by which leaders from different organizations, sectors, and levels of influence come together for Collective Impact is incredibly important”. To this I would add that some groups will currently be dominant (i.e. be the ‘incumbents’), others will have less power and resources (i.e. ‘challengers’) and this will shape agenda-setting processes.
Further consideration of collective action theory and related theoretical and change management insights: proponents of collective impact acknowledge the difficulty of bringing together people who have never collaborated before. However, the collective impact framework and literature provides little or no guidance on how to go about achieving this collaboration. For example, what process can or should be used to move groups from diverse agendas towards a ‘common agenda’ for a collective impact initiative? How can a more widely agreed vision be articulated? What negotiation skills or methods are needed be devise and agree common indicators and enable greater sharing of data?
Theories of social change and stability: the collective impact framework aims to help actors to better achieve “large-scale social change” through broader coordination; however, social change theory is noticeably absent from the collective impact literature. There is a need to reflect on the theories of change that underpin the framework, and further develop the theoretical underpinning.