Defining collective impact

The definition of collective impact is “the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem at scale.”  In our view, the five conditions of collective impact outlined in the initial 2011 Stanford Social Innovation Review article – Common Agenda, Shared Measurement, Mutually Reinforcing Activities, Continuous Communication, and Backbone Support – still hold.

In addition to these core conditions, the field’s practice of collective impact is advancing to recognise that there are other aspects of the work that are critical to achieving impact using the collective impact approach. While we haven’t amended the initial five conditions, we encourage collective impact practitioners to consider:

1. Ensuring that community members (residents, individuals with lived experience) are authentically engaged in the conception, design, governance, and implementation of the collective impact process.

2. Bringing an equity lens to collective impact work – to ensure that inequality along race, class, gender and culture lines is tackled head on through a collective impact initiative.  It is important that the collective impact effort itself does not inadvertently reinforce systemic inequality, including areas like governance, data and measurement, and strategy development.

3. Strengthening system leadership.  Collective impact requires a certain leadership approach, which we refer to as system leadership, to succeed. System leaders are not singular heroic figures, but those who facilitate the conditions within which others can make progress towards social change.  The core capabilities necessary for system leadership are the ability to see the larger system; fostering reflection and more generative conversations; and shifting the collective focus from reactive problem solving to co-creating the future.

4. Enabling continuous learning. Much of the power of collective impact comes from ensuring that participants in the collective are using data (for example, quantitative data from shared measurement, and contextual data from members of the community) to learn and improve their work going forward.  The use of data for adaptation and improvement is what enables the collective to learn and improve its work, and ultimately to get to large-scale, sustainable change.


Biggest misconceptions around collective impact 

One major misconception is that collective impact is a straightforward process, or a “formula” for achieving social change.  In other words, if you put the five conditions in place and follow a step-by-step process you will achieve collective impact. While each of the five conditions is important, every collective impact initiative is unique in how these conditions are implemented.

In addition, collective impact is as much about the relationships and trust among the people and organisations involved as it is about the five conditions. It is ultimately about enabling adaptive, collective problem-solving.  Oversimplifying what collective impact is can lead to the assumption that it is easy to implement and will lead to quickly seen results. It can sometimes take years, or decades, to achieve the large scale change that collective impact efforts seek.

A second misconception is around the role of the backbone for a collective impact initiative.  There is sometimes the belief that a backbone organisation sets the agenda for the collaborative and holds the “power” for the group’s decisions. In reality, the backbone should be playing a facilitative, servant-leader role – guiding the decisions of the collaborative, based on the expertise and input of a cross-sector steering committee and input from a broad range of partners and community members.

A third misconception is that collective impact efforts divert significant funds from existing programs and organisations to the supporting infrastructure (backbone support). While it is true that there are additional costs to operating a collective impact initiative – specifically those of the backbone support, design and implementation of a shared measurement approach, and convening / meeting costs – the overall costs of the collective impact infrastructure is typically quite small when compared to the overall resources (public and private) that the initiative is working to influence and improve.

Yet another misconception is that collective impact is about “picking winners” – only inviting the “best” organisations into the collaborative. In reality, achieving the goals at scale that collective impact initiatives set for themselves – such as lowering childhood obesity rates in a community – requires all relevant organisations to be engaged and aligned, not just a subset with a proven track record. Much of the power of collective impact is helping organisations to learn from each other, sharing what works and spreading that practice to others, and helping all partners working in the community to improve.


Most important factors for collective impact success

Process and relationships are key.  Per the comments above, it is critical to focus not only on putting the collaborative structures and processes in place (that is, the five conditions of collective impact), but also to invest in building trust and relationships among the people involved in the collective. As the saying goes, “Progress moves at the speed of trust.”

Harness both “content” and “context” expertise.  It is also critical to ensure that a collective impact initiative is not just a “top down” project driven by senior leaders with formal authority, but that members of the community and individuals with lived experience are meaningfully engaged as well.  There is a need for both “content” and “context” expertise in this work.

Enable collective seeing, learning and doing.  In addition, it is critical that the initiatives use data to learn, adapt, and improve as they go. This continuous learning cycle is essential for collective impact initiatives to achieve their goals. One of the fundamental values of collective impact is having all stakeholders involved learn from the data that is being collected to improve their work.


Lessons for philanthropy

Funders are critical actors in collective impact efforts, and their contributions stretch well beyond financial resources. Other valuable assets that philanthropists can leverage include their convening power, their ability to play the role of an influential champion, and lending their knowledge and expertise.  Some of the key lessons for philanthropic funders that we have learned through this work include:

Focus on the overall issue, not just on supporting individual grantees.  Moving from investing in individual grantees to a more systemic, problem-focused orientation can be a major shift for funders.

Build the capacity and infrastructure for multiple organisations to work together, in addition to building the capacity of individual organisations.  This can include convening, as well as investing in backbone capacity and shared measurement systems, and developing systems maps.

Co-create and be adaptable – seize opportunities as they emerge, without being overly prescriptive. When engaging in collective impact, funders need to be mindful of the power dynamics that come along with their role.  It isn’t appropriate for a funder to dictate the agenda of an entire initiative.  Engagement in a collective impact effort may require the funder to adapt their own goals or approaches based on the priorities identified by the group.

Invest for the long term. System-level change does not happen on a grant cycle timeline.  Be prepared to make long term investments, and to measure progress in terms of process and systems changes in addition to ultimate outcomes.

We believe that collective impact is one of the most critical approaches to solving complex social and environmental problems facing societies across the globe.  Complex problems cannot be solved by individual actors, and we’re excited about the potential for those willing to embrace the collective impact approach.


Learn more about collective impact

Collaboration for Impact

An Australian site (currently in beta) that provides a place for participants from the Collective Impact 2014 conference and other practitioners of collective impact to connect and learn from each other, with a view to building a flourishing community of practice.

The Collective Impact Forum

A US-based, free online community that aims to increase the effectiveness and adoption of collective impact by providing practitioners with access to the tools, training opportunities, and peer networks they need to be successful in their work. The Collective Impact Forum includes communities of practice, in-person convenings, and an online community and resource centre. 


Based in Canada, Tamarack is an institute for community engagement that develops and supports learning communities that help people collaborate, co-generate knowledge and achieve collective impact on complex community issues.


Recommended reading:

Collective Insights on Collective Impact

3 Steps for Advancing Equity through Collective Impact

The Dawn of System Leadership

Tackling Complex Social Problems through Collective Impact

For examples of collective impact in the US see Forum for Youth Investment, Living Cities or Strive Together.





Fay Hanleybrown is Managing Director, FSG.

Jennifer Splansky Juster is Director, Collective Impact Forum.



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Lead image cc Flickr – Tamarack C4C Calgary 2015