John Kania and Mark Kramer coined the term “collective impact” in a seminal paper published in 2011 in Stanford Social Innovation Review. While the concept of collaboration is not new, the authors identified requisite factors associated with successful collaborations focused on large-scale social change, rather than the “isolated impact” of individual organizations that tends to remain the norm even today.
Collective impact relies on a systematic approach involving cross-sector coordination to achieve progress toward shared objectives. This specialized coordination stems from five conditions that Kania and Kramer say are necessary to achieve alignment:
- Common agenda — Participants have a shared vision for change, a common understanding of the problem, and a joint approach to solving it through agreed upon actions.
- Shared measurement systems — Success is measured and reported using consistent indicators for collecting data and assessing results.
- Mutually reinforcing activities — Participants’ efforts need not be uniform, but rather focused on a specific set of activities at which each participant excels in a way that is coordinated and supports the actions of others.
- Continuous communication — This recognizes the time it takes to develop trust among participants through regular meetings and development of a common vocabulary.
- Backbone support structure — A separate entity and staff with specific skills (a supporting infrastructure) is required to manage the collective impact process.
In the five years since Kania and Kramer’s paper, philanthropic organizations, nonprofit organizations, government, private industry, consultants, and others have embraced the concept of collective impact. While the potential for collective impact to address deeply entrenched, complex social problems is exciting, the field is still relatively new and lessons are only slowly emerging.
Some have erroneously viewed collective impact as a formula — that if you mix together the five conditions you will automatically achieve collective impact. While it is a structured process, not all collaborative endeavors can be called collective impact. Furthermore, meeting the five conditions does not guarantee success. Collective impact may be viewed as more of an art than a science. Despite the rigor behind collective impact, each application requires customization dependent upon local context.
Kania, J, Kramer, M. “Collective impact.” Stanford Social Innovation Review. 2011:36-41.