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Rethinking Collective Impact

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Communities across the nation are in desperate trouble. Local and state governments are broke, roads and bridges are crumbling, public education is failing, foreclosures are continuing and cultural institutions are closing. In this environment, it is not surprising that nonprofit organizations and foundations would be motivated to pursue any strategy that would enable them to utilize their existing resources and achieve results beyond what they could individually accomplish. This may help explain why, since its introduction over a year ago, collective impact has transformed from a promising idea undergoing field testing in various communities to being widely accepted as a proven approach for solving challenging systemic issues.

The concept of collective impact appears to be at a fever pitch throughout the nonprofit sector. Collective impact is center stage at nonprofit and foundation conferences and there are now webinars, seminars and trainings about how to implement this approach. Unfortunately, a close examination of the concept suggests that even under ideal conditions it appears difficult to achieve and, in some cases, may undermine key values of the nonprofit sector.

Collective Impact, as described by John Kania and Mark Kramer in the Winter 2011 Stanford Social Innovation Review, represents more than the routine cross sector collaborations involving foundations, nonprofits, businesses and government. Its key characteristics are: a common agenda, an agreed upon measurement system, centralized infrastructure with a dedicated project staff, mutually reinforcing activities and ongoing communications among participants.

Routine collaborations among foundations, nonprofits and others are difficult to pull off successfully. They require developing shared interests and strategies while simultaneously agreeing on how disputes will be resolved and credit or blame will be shared. Even when cross sector collaborations do form, collaboration itself does not guarantee that the actual project will achieve the desired results.

Collective impact envisions an even higher standard of collaboration that requires long-term commitment and consensus from all. Specifically:

"Collective impact requires instead that funders support a long term process of social change without identifying any particular solution in advance. They must be willing to let grantees steer the work and have the patience to stay with the initiative for years, recognizing that social change can come from the gradual improvement of an entire system over time, not just from a single breakthrough by an individual organization."

This statement is highly problematic. Assume that several foundations using collective impact provide funding to create the necessary organizational infrastructure with a staff, shared measurement outcomes and a free flowing communications network.

Foundations have a legal, fiduciary responsibility to support ideas that are consistent with their missions and bylaws. They cannot and should not support projects steered by others without any idea of what the solutions might be in advance. To do so could put them at real risk of supporting activities contrary to their missions.

Equally troubling is the underlying belief that nonprofits have secret knowledge that magically eludes foundation boards and staff, many of whom were recruited from the very same nonprofits. Of course, nonprofit staff engaged in doing the daily work of their organizations develop important insights. Equally true, and lost in the collective impact paradigm, is that foundation staff, funding projects over time in different communities and cities, if not different parts of the world, also gain important perspectives. The collective impact approach actually limits collective wisdom by suggesting that foundations fund the work without being full participants in shaping the work or establishing agreed upon timelines for when a shared strategy is likely to be developed.

There are many examples of foundations being overbearing and exerting too much influence to the detriment of a collaborative effort and group dynamics. The solution, however, is not for foundations to refrain from any involvement or active participation. It is difficult to imagine a venture capitalist, who is putting capital at risk, being told to allow others to shape the ideas over years while an assorted group of entrepreneurs figure it out on their own. Venture capitalists are expected to bring forth their knowledge and expertise to help make the project successful.

Let's assume a foundation is willing to provide resources over years and allow others to shape the project outcome. Collective impact suggests that the nonprofit and other partners will reach the necessary agreements on their own after "several years" of deliberation.

How exactly does this happen? If a long-term perspective over time is essential for collective impact to be successful, what level of discipline is required for a diverse group of nonprofit, business and government groups to reach agreement and stay on task for years? Other than extreme circumstances, what keeps them at the table and why don't we see such partnerships occurring naturally on a regular basis? Adding further complexity, government entities and corporations have legitimately different time horizons that drive their decision making. Can a mayor afford to be engaged in an effort that will take years to reach consensus? Will her successor be equally committed to the initiative? Will business leaders believe that a multiple year process just to develop the strategy is a productive use of their time? If consensus is reached, does it represent bold action or the least objectionable collective decision? What happens when key external considerations change while discussions are ongoing? Does the group simply start over?

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, every nonprofit organization exists because a group of people fervently believe in its unique vision and mission. While some may want nonprofits to decide strategy based solely on what they may consider objective evidence, the reality is that for nonprofits to agree on a collective impact strategy it must be consistent with the nonprofits' values and beliefs. Different visions and values represent the real strength of the nonprofit sector and explain its growth and diversity. Nonprofits with different value propositions simply cannot abandon their views for the holy grail of collective impact no matter how long they stay involved in the discussion. To do so means nonprofits would risk losing their purpose, supporters and funders.

Consider, for example, that there is a collective impact effort to stem teenage pregnancies. Keeping with the premise of collective impact, there is no agenda established in advance and all groups interested in family planning are brought together. Do we really believe a common approach can be developed between those who believe in abstinence as the most effective method and those who believe in providing birth control? The value proposition of both types of organizations has merit and is why the nonprofit sector exists.

It also should be noted that just because everyone agrees does not mean the resulting consensus is the correct thing to do. Singular dogmas that force ideological homogeneity run counter to diversity, inclusiveness and innovation.

While none of these issues are sufficient reason not to at least try collective impact, the nonprofit sector would greatly benefit from developing a practice and comfort with more rigorous and healthy debate about new ideas before rushing to adopt them.

This blog post is part one of a two-part series.