Philanthropists are often in the business of tackling complex, entrenched social problems: reducing homelessness; improving Indigenous health outcomes; battling abuse and neglect of children.

Working with external stakeholders towards solving these complex challenges problems is rarely optional, but how collaborators engage in their work together is.

Pooling resources with other private and corporate funders, bringing nonprofits together to achieve common goals, and rallying the support of interest groups are increasingly common agenda items for philanthropists, and for the most part collaborations and joint projects are evolving organically or according to existing structures for collaborative effort.

The ‘Collective Impact’ idea, a methodology for achieving success in the face of complex dilemmas, is a framework that raises the bar on business-as-usual collaborative methods and relationships. It recognises that for all the positive intent often involved, successful collaboration is rarely easy.

Love and marriage

“Like in a marriage, when we first come together to collaborate with others, we’re drawn by the romance and the high hopes we have for the future,” said Social Leadership Australia’s Liz Skelton at the recent inaugural and sold-out Sydney Collective Impact 2014 conference, presented by the Centre for Social Impact and Social Leadership Australia.

Generosity-Collective-Impact-Sam-Gibbs“But inevitably, when the first flushes of love are dwindling, and the dirty socks and towels on the floor become evident, we have to find a new way of keeping the relationship going. We need the skills to move forward.”

Among the more than 200 philanthropy, nonprofit, government, and community professionals and thinkers in attendance at the recent conference, many had stories to tell of collaborative efforts gone awry, of stalemates met, and of breakdowns in project momentum due to lack of trust and misaligned expectations. The hunger for guidance towards engineered collaboration was palpable.

Drinking the Collective Kool-Aid

“Sure, there’s a lot of drinking the Collective Impact Kool-Aid,” said one participant of the current fervour for the Framework, “but the truth is that having a system for collaboration is just smarter than going in without one. That’s why these people are all here. They don’t want to waste any more time and effort – or money.”


Collective Impact asks first whether collaboration (rather than simpler communication, co-operation, or co-ordination) is required to tackle a problem. It assesses the necessary preconditions for successful collaborative effort (a case for change, adequate resources, one or more influential champions), and navigates the processes of co-defining a dilemma or opportunity and establishing joint measurement and analysis systems.

The Framework not only offers a model of collaborative governance, but stresses the importance of identifying and nurturing the interpersonal and professional tools required to ensure collaborative success.

“You can bring all the right people with all the money in a room together, but that doesn’t mean they’ll collaborate,” says specialist Vivien Twyford.

Having originated in the United States in 2011, The Collective Impact model is gaining traction in Australia, and pioneering philanthropists have been among early adopters on both shores.

More Bang: Lessons from and for philanthropy in Collective Impact

Two philanthropic proponents of Collective Impact who spoke at the Sydney conference offered lessons from their experiences with the Framework:

Generosity-Philanthropist-Seri-Renkin-Sam-Gibbsten20 Foundation: The business case is compelling

When the board of 125-year-old Victorian children’s welfare organisation Gordon Care sat down two years ago to assess its impact in the community, it faced an uncomfortable question: Are we doing enough to transform the lives of vulnerable children in our care?

The answer was no, said Seri Renkin, CEO of the ten20 Foundation, the venture philanthropy organisation that evolved from the liquidation of Gordon Care assets and which now focuses on achieving Collective Impact outcomes for vulnerable children in 20 communities for the next ten years.

“The business case for Collective Impact is compelling,” Renkin said at the conference. “There are so many of us in the philanthropic sector who traditionally have cherry-picked projects and organisations for funding, thinking we already have the answers to social problems.

“Collective Impact forces a shift in thinking. In pooling our funds with other sources of capital, increasing efficiency by combining resources with the community, looking for alignment and reducing duplication, by focusing on the collective rather than the individual – we are talking about using existing levels of funding but reallocating it in more effective ways to create really transformative social change.”

Generosity-Collective-Impact-GibbsThe Tow Foundation: Amplify your impact

American Emily Tow Jackson is the executive director and president of the board of trustees at her family’s foundation, The Tow Foundation, which in the late nineties became interested in juvenile justice issues in the States of Connecticut and, more recently, New York.

Determined to see New York’s dysfunctional and ineffectual Juvenile Justice System overhauled, The Tow Foundation invested in the facilitation of a Collective Impact process to research, map, and create connections in a ‘system’ of courts, law enforcement, probation, rehabilitation, education, mental health, and welfare services that had previously existed in silos, working non-communicatively and often at cross purposes.

“It was very clear that no single intervention was going to be the answer,” Tow Jackson told Collective Impact 2014.

Using the Collective Impact framework, funded in part by The Tow Foundation, the project brought to the same table senior judges, government, business, young offenders, families, advocates and victims to establish a common vision and set of guiding principles for the work ahead.

Two years on and there has already been a 45 per cent decrease in the numbers of young people entering New York State detention facilities, thanks to the newly co-ordinated provision of services from the collective. Legislative changes are also slated for 2014 that will see the maximum age of young offenders sent to juvenile detention facilities increased from 16 to 18 years – a change that will affect the lives of 50,000 young New Yorkers who will access youth rehabilitation services rather than the adult prison system.

“The potential to amplify your impact is boundless,” Tow Jackson said. “We couldn’t have dreamed of making this kind of change alone, and now we have achieved it together.”

Learn more about Collective Impact

For more information about Collective Impact, see and the Collective Impact 2014 conference site.

For an introductory webinar on the Framework, join Graham and Skelton in a short lecture here: