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Emmett D. Carson


Rethinking Collective Impact: Part Two

Posted: 09/05/2012 6:06 pm

In Collective Impact, foundations are presented as being committed to patiently provide funding over years while allowing nonprofits to steer the work. However, a careful reading suggests that foundations do lead in using their power and influence to encourage participation in collective impact projects with nonprofit grantees and fellow funders when they deem it appropriate.

In describing one example of collective impact, the authors' state: "Funders can play an important role in getting organizations to act in concert." They go on to describe how one foundation requires every nonprofit applying for a grant to indicate whether it participates in the collective impact initiative. Is the real reason nonprofits consent to participate in discussions over years because it would be detrimental to their continued funding if they do not?

Requiring a nonprofit to disclose if it is part of the collective impact agenda seems to be a not so subtle message that foundation support is contingent on participation. Is this really the standard for considering a nonprofits' grant proposal? Such encouragement is not limited to nonprofits. When a colleague foundation expressed interest in the same topic area as the collective impact initiative "they were encouraged by virtually every major education leader to join the initiative." What new ideas might have been funded if that foundation had not joined the collective impact initiative? Apparently, while foundations should allow others to lead the collective impact discussions, they are free to use their considerable influence with nonparticipating nonprofits and foundations.

Given the energy and attention that has been generated by the concept of collective impact, it is useful to ask whether there is evidence that it works. As the authors fully acknowledge, it's too early to tell.

Evidence of the effectiveness of this approach is still limited, but these examples suggest that substantially greater progress could be made in alleviating many of our most serious and complex social problems if nonprofits, governments, businesses, and the public were brought together around a common agenda to create collective impact.

Although the actual evidence is still limited, the authors make the leap of faith that collective impact is the best approach for making large scale change. They conclude with: "If successful, it presages the spread of a new approach that will enable us to solve today's most serious social problems with the resources we already have at our disposal."

Collective impact may well prove to be a useful tool in making a difference in selected communities; however, today there is no objective evidence that collective impact is a proven approach for solving systemic community problems. In the example of Cincinnati's Strive educational initiative, it is stated that 34 of the 53 success indicators have been positive. If each measure is equally important, this is a 64 percent success rate, which is positive but hardly conclusive. It could be that the most important success measures have shown positive movement or it could be that they have shown the least progress. We simply do not know, and need to know, before we can judge collective impact's success with this project.

Foundations exist, in part, to experiment and try new things. In this regard, collective impact is an experiment worth trying and learning from. The danger occurs when there is a widespread rush to champion and adopt new practices before such efforts have proven effective. This is a concern especially when collective impact efforts require a substantial financial commitment and take years for agreements to be reached and still more years for the effort to get under way and results evaluated.

When a family member is gravely ill, loved ones are willing to try any cure no matter how experimental. In such cases, doctors understand that they are experimenting and do not offer the treatment to the general public before it has received rigorous testing and evaluation. In the case of collective impact, the opposite is true. The nonprofit sector appears willing to accept the premise of collective impact based on its promise without the necessary evidence of its success. In prematurely promoting collective impact for widespread adoption in solving community problems, its proponents risk violating one of the most important canons in the medical profession, which is to do no harm.

Our communities face staggering challenges and it is more difficult than ever to have meaningful impact. Without question, collaboration across sectors should be encouraged and applauded whenever and wherever it occurs. The idea of a collective impact in which foundations agree on providing long term funding and letting others direct a process where nonprofits, businesses and government bodies will naturally come together over years may prove to work in communities facing desperate conditions. After all, when a rowboat is sinking, everyone in the boat is willing to work together to do whatever is necessary to keep the boat afloat.

However, just because everyone is willing and committed to a shared plan with agreed upon outcomes and clear communications does not mean that the boat won't still sink.

The job of every nonprofit and foundation is to make difficult decisions based on vision, mission and values. If other entities share those perspectives, collaboration and perhaps some form of collective impact is possible and desirable. But to come together on any other basis undermines the very reason for the nonprofit sector's existence. Sometimes, the hardest thing to do is to say no to the crowd, especially when they are your friends and colleagues.