SSLR Winter 2011This is the second of two posts on Collective Impact,” an article by John Kania and Mark R. Kramer from the Winter 2011 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review.

The primary example of cross sector collaboration profiled in Collective Impact is “Strive”, a Cincinnati based initiative addressing education reform from “cradle to career.” Three hundred organizations initially agreed to participate in Strive across all three social sectors – government, corporate, and nonprofit organizations.  A core group of influential leaders from these sectors began to emerge, and over the course of three years (as of the date Collective Impact was written in the winter of 2011), student achievement in Cincinnati had improved across 34 of 53 success indicators.

The authors describe five features of “collective impact” that form a useful check list for those who would attempt to duplicate the success of Strive.

  1. Common Agenda:  All members of the coalition must have a shared vision for change and an agreement on one or two primary outcomes (not outputs) that they intend to achieve.  What are the “central goals” of the initiative?  Above all, continuous communication is the key to achieving this result.
  2. Shared Measurement Systems:  What does success look like, and how will we know we’ve achieved it?  We will know by agreeing on what to measure and how to measure it.  Evidence based decision making is absolutely required before we can understand what has been achieved and what yet needs to be done.
  3. Mutually Reinforcing Activities:  While the authors do not require a clear differentiation of roles and responsibilities for coalition members, they do encourage “coordination of their differentiated activities” through a written plan of action.  Who is doing what?  Try to eliminate as much duplication of activity as possible.
  4. Continuous Communication:  For such a big and unwieldy coalition to move the needle, trust is absolutely essential.  Regular meetings among the organization’s CEO level leaders are a necessary prerequisite to build trust.  Communicate, communicate, communicate!
  5. Backbone Support:  As one coalition leader recently put it, you can’t expect all this to get done in the basement of a church during evening hours by well-intended volunteers.  A professionally staffed “backbone” of project managers, data managers, and facilitators is required.
Funding Collective Impact:  Standing up a collation that has “collective impact” as its goal is one thing, but sustaining it is quite another. Even the Strive network has struggled to raise funding for backbone support, reflecting the challenge that every nonprofit faces in finding “operational” as opposed to “program” support.  Community based funders can have no higher calling in a collective impact initiative than to fund the backbone and keep funding it, thereby providing the infrastructure support for the endeavor to succeed.

Conclusion:  Years ago, Margaret Mead famously said “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” At its core, “Collective Impact” discusses this same idea, but with a particular focus on philanthropy’s role in the mix. We can change the world, but never in isolation and never alone. Through this modern take on an older truth, Kania and Kramer show us that when a “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens” get conscious about cross sector collaboration, agree on outcomes, measure progress, and (above all) persist, the mountain moves!