Beyond Grantmaking: Considering Collective Impact for Systemic Change

As a grantmaker, where do you start if you want to end homelessness, solve the healthcare dilemma, or reverse economic decline in major urban centers? It’s a trick question. You could start in twenty different places, but what matters more than your starting point is who you bring along with you and how you engage your travel companions along the way.

The issues listed above are notorious for their ability to confound powerful politicians, produce myriad contradictory policies, and ultimately consume enormous resources without yielding positive or lasting results. Collective impact is a new approach for these tenacious problems in which multiple, diverse, cross-sector stakeholders work together to coordinate their efforts and assets towards a systems change that will create breakthrough differences in complex problems. Changing the system is necessary when attempting to address complex problems because these problems are more than the sum of their parts. In other words you can’t “solve” the big puzzle by tackling just one of its pieces. It is also often difficult to see a system in its entirety or predict how acting on one part of it will affect the whole. Therefore isolated interventions, no matter how ingenious, often fail or fail to produce worthwhile returns on investment.

The collective impact approach is gaining ground on systemic problems where isolated interventions have been tried and have failed. What is the secret to this novel approach and how does it break the gridlock around complex issues? In the broadest sense, collective impact utilizes the power of diverse perspectives and experiences to get a better handle on the system as a whole. Collective impact brings together diverse stakeholders, including funders, public agencies, private parties, community members, and others to share their perspectives, shed new light on familiar ground, and redefine the problem. With a broader view of the problem, new solutions often become apparent and/or multiple solutions can be coordinated towards a common goal.

Collective impact is a relatively new field and studies are just beginning to define what is needed for success. FSG articulates five markers of success including:

  • Common Agenda – All participants share a common understanding of the problem and a jointly developed vision and set of actions for addressing the problem.
  • Shared Measurement – All participants agree on what success looks like and on how to measure success in outcomes and processes.
  • Mutually Reinforcing Activities – An action plan that outlines differentiated yet complimentary actions for each set of stakeholders.
  • Continuous Communication – All participants engage in frequent communication to build and reinforce trust, share learning, and support implementation of action plans.
  • Backbone Organization To Facilitate The Process – An independent and funded staff dedicated to supporting the initiative by guiding strategy, managing operational processes, mobilizing resources, and building relationships.

The Foundation Center adds the need for:

  • Information Sharing – Free flow of information to all participants.
  • Opportunities To Leverage And Maximize Resources – Recognition of diverse participants’ resources and opportunities to utilize these resources to further systems solutions.
  • Mutually Developed Structures and Agreements – An agreed upon process for all participants to regularly engage as equals so they can learn from each other and collectively develop solutions.
  • Attention To Systems Solutions – Understanding of the “systems” concept and agreement to seek solutions that address the root of a problem rather than symptoms.

In a recent article in Stanford Social Innovation Review, John Kania and Mark Kramer of FSG hit upon what is probably the most important element in collective impact and the largest leap for funders and nonprofits: successful collective impact endeavors must be prepared to set an intention or a vision for the future BUT abandon a rigid theory of change for how to get there. This can present a real problem if participants in collective impact come to the table hoping to win support for their theory of change and scale their pre-determined solution. It can also be a problem if a group agrees to examine and define the problem together, but then determines a fixed solution that may not be applicable as events change the context.

Collective impact shows real promise as an innovative way to tackle large and intractable challenges. However, engaging in this process requires participants to do some internal reflection and perhaps even some transformation to be successful. If you are a funder who is considering engaging in a collective impact endeavor, we suggest asking yourself some of the following reflective questions to gain clarity about your own interests, goals, and needs:

  • How do we know this is the topic to focus on right now?
  • How comfortable are we redefining the problem and/or the solutions in collaboration with other stakeholders?
  • What is our comfort level with not knowing, being wrong and/or changing course?
  • How many resources, and which resources, are we comfortable putting towards something that we can’t solely control?
  • How much ownership/credit do we want? How much are we willing to share?
  • What timeframe are we comfortable with and able to commit to?
  • How will we know when we are done?

These guiding questions will help you understand what role you are best suited to play in a collaborative venture.