Collective Impact – An Idea Whose Time Has Come

In the Midwest, a group of foundations and non-profits decided to try an experiment – instead of individual foundations placing grants with individual non-profits, they came together to create a coordinated network to pursue the ambitious long-term goal of reducing regional global warming emissions 80 percent (from 2005 levels) by 2050. The Garfield Foundation, onRe-ampgraphic2e of the initiators of the experiment, recognized that the existing work on these issues was fragmented and not achieving the scale of impact needed. The RE-AMP network has now grown to include 125 nonprofits and funders across eight states. A recent case study by The Monitor Institute reported that over the last seven years, their collective work has helped pass energy-efficiency policies in six states, blocked development of 28 new coal plants, and helped influence several states to increase investments in energy efficiency.

The RE-AMP network’s experience is one example of a new approach called “collective impact” – as defined in a recent article by John Kania and Mark Kramer in Stanford Social Innovation Review, which they define as: the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem. They feature the Strive Partnership in Greater Cincinnati where over 300 leaders of school districts, city governments, educated-related non-profit groups, foundations, and universities coordinated their efforts to improve education and student achievement. In four years, the Strive Partnership and its partners in three large public school districts were able to show positive trends on 34 of 53 success indicators, including high school graduation rates and fourth-grade reading and math scores.

Both of these examples go well beyond a tactical collaboration or partnership to more fully integrate strategies and create a robust, resilient network that can plan, measure, learn and adjust together. The following are key elements of a “collective impact” strategy, building on Kania and Kramer’s five proposed success factors:

  • A common agenda and goals, based on a systems-view – The funders and other key actors agree on a clear long-term goal (e.g., 80% GHG reductions by 2050) and invest time in developing a mutual understanding the system, the participants, and key “levers” or sub-goals to achieve the overall goal. In RE-AMP, an in-depth analysis of the system enabled the funders and non-profits to see gaps in their activities. A consultant to RE-AMP said “When we finished the initial systems analysis we saw about $2 million move across the table toward fighting coal. That’s an example of how an insight from a set of analytical tools created the context for foundations and activists to look at what they were doing and make big changes.”
  • Shared measurement systems – When all of the participating organizations agree to gather and report data on their progress in a consistent way (which is not a small task,) it enables the whole network to see what is working, what is not, hold each other accountable, and learn and adjust. In Strive, when all of the pre-schools measured results with the same criteria, they discovered that students regressed during the summer and instituted a “summer bridge” program which increased the average kindergarten readiness scores throughout the region by an average of 10 percent in a single year.
  • Coordinated activities – Participants in the network coordinate their activities so each organization can focus on areas of their strengths and skills, doing its part to contribute to the whole system achieving its goals.
  • Learning and communication – The coordinated network offers multiple in-person and on-line ways for participants to connect, communicate, learn, and make adjustments.  RE-AMP has working groups for each of its four goals, an annual conference, regular webinars, and a shared technology platform. A joint Media Center tracks news and does research and training on how to frame messages with the public.
  • Backbone support organizations – “The expectation that collaboration can occur without a supporting infrastructure is one of the most frequent reasons why it fails” state Kania and Kramer. In the RE-AMP and Strive Partnership examples, foundations invested a sizable amount in the collaborative infrastructure. This included dedicated staff to coordinate the network, collect and report data, facilitate meetings and work groups, and resources for a common technology platform and media center, annual meeting expenses, etc.

This is an “idea whose time has come.” Whether at the level of one region, such as the Cincinnati example, or regionally, or nationally…issue by issue, there are opportunities to align the many players working on common goals for greater impact and efficiency.

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