Collective impact, an approach that’s growing among nonprofits, is more than just collaboration. Its originators describe the phrase as the commitment of a group of important players from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem. That includes the nonprofits themselves, government, businesses and constituent communities.

In the Stanford Social Innovation Review article that introduced the concept, the authors explicitly contrasted collective impact with collaboration. Unlike most collaborations, they explained, collective impact initiatives involve a centralized infrastructure, dedicated staff and structured process.

Create the right environment

An example of the approach: In 2016, the Hampton Roads Community Foundation in Southeast Virginia initiated a region wide process to improve the results in early care and education programs. It tapped almost 100 stakeholders in planning a program designed to unite previously disparate programs and participants to achieve greater impact. The Minus 9 to 5 initiative has been able to align actions across five cities in Virginia in only two years.

Adherents of collective impact typically cite five prerequisites that together produce the alignment necessary for successful initiatives:

First, a common agenda is paramount. All participants in the initiative must have a shared vision for change, based on a common understanding of the problem and their goals. While everyone doesn’t need to agree on every facet of the problem, differences among the participants’ definitions of the problem — and their goals — must be resolved to preempt splintered efforts.

Second, participants agree on how success will be measured and reported. If they don’t, conformity on a common agenda will have little value. Each of the participants must take the same approach to data collection and metrics to ensure the continued alignment of efforts, foster accountability and facilitate the kind of information sharing that can make it easier to meet goals.

Third, activities strengthen the project as a whole. Collective impact depends on stakeholders working together in an overarching plan. But that doesn’t mean they all must do the same thing. Rather, each participant should be encouraged to pursue the activities at which it excels, in a way that both supports and coordinates with its fellow participants’ activities.

Fourth, continuous communication is required. Perhaps the biggest challenge to collective impact is the need for trust among stakeholders. Trust generally develops over time and across interactions; the most effective initiatives meet regularly. As months and years progress, stakeholders who work together to share information and solve problems can recognize and appreciate their individual roles and their common motivation.

Last, a “backbone” entity takes the lead. As mentioned above, collective impact requires a separate organization with its own infrastructure, which will provide the “backbone” for the project. The backbone entity needs its own dedicated staff to plan, manage and support the initiative. Think about it: Will any of the participants alone have the extra resources needed to handle all the logistical and administrative details?

Evaluate outcomes holistically

These days, evaluation frequently focuses on a project’s outcomes. For example, how many graduates of an adult literacy program can now read at a sixth-grade level? Collective impact programs, however, generally are too complicated and unpredictable for such an approach to provide an accurate measure of progress and success.

Instead, you need to look at a collective impact initiative holistically and consider all parts of the “puzzle.” To best assess progress in bringing about desired change, consider — among other things — the effectiveness of the initiative’s change making process, including its structure and operations. You’ll also need to review ways influencers of the targeted issues are changing and the degree of progress toward the ultimate goals.

Consider, too, the initiative’s stage. For example, an early-stage evaluation might focus more on structure and operations, while a later-stage assessment looks at progress made toward the goals.

The parts equal the whole

As nonprofits increasingly take on thorny problems that call for large-scale social change (for example, global warming, economic development or better education), more and more entities are turning to the collective impact approach. Organizations that join in on such an initiative must give each component of the project the attention it warrants to meet collective goals.

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