There’s been a lot of buzz about Collective Impact ever since John Kania and Mark Kramer named and defined this approach to collaboration in their Winter 2011 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. But what is it? Is it any different from collaboration? Is anyone using it successfully?

Put simply, Collective Impact is a disciplined approach to multi-sector collaboration. It’s based on the belief that no one agency can successfully address the kinds of complex issues facing our communities on its own. Challenges like ensuring student success, ending homelessness or cleaning up the environment call for harnessing the support, expertise and resources of multiple agencies across the private and public sectors. Doing that effectively has been the challenge.

What Kania and Kramer discovered when they looked at successful community-wide change efforts is that they shared five conditions – a common agenda, shared measurement, mutually reinforcing activities, constant communication, and backbone support. This disciplined approach is what makes it different from much of what we refer to as collaboration. It’s like collaboration on steroids! Let’s look at each condition.

The 5 conditions of Collective Impact

Common Agenda

Collective Impact begins with a common understanding of the problem being faced, a shared vision of the desired future, and a “framework for change” to reflect the strategies the group thinks are important for success. The community is involved in creating the common agenda, so all the perspectives and voices that have a role to play are included in its development. Along with a combination of government, nonprofit, business, education, and faith communities, it includes those who have lived the problem being addressed as co-creaters of the agenda, not just recipients of services.

Shared measurement

How will you know if the initiative is making a difference? A manageable number of community-level indicators (e.g., percent of students entering school ready to learn or pollution levels in the Bay) are needed to track the initiative’s progress. At the same time, individual partners also track and report on performance measures for their agency’s services. The value of all this measurement is in the partners coming together to make sense of the data, learn from it, and use it to drive performance improvements and system changes.

Mutually reinforcing activities

The efforts of each partner fit into an overarching plan and each understands how what they do fits into this bigger picture. Each is doing those things they do best and that they may be uniquely able to provide; they’re playing to their strengths. This coordination of efforts creates a cohesive approach to the initiative. It may also lead to individual actors letting go of some of the peripheral work they’ve been doing as they focus on what they do best.

Continuous communication

This level of collaboration can’t happen without ongoing communication among the partners and with the community and elected officials. The purpose is not just to inform but to build trust and support for the initiative. It’s easy to skip regular, ongoing communication, especially when things are really busy – and when aren’t they? But skipping this creates a lack of transparency that will quickly erode trust among partners and the community.

Backbone support

The need for backbone support is too often overlooked. How often have we been in meetings that produce great ideas and action steps – and then nothing comes of it? It’s likely no one was tasked with providing the logistical support needed to keep activities on track. The backbone provides dedicated resources to support the work of the collaborative; it guides the vision and strategy, but doesn’t set the agenda or drive the solutions.

Collective Impact in Maryland

There are a number of Collective Impact initiatives in different stages of development across the state. To name just a few examples… Baltimore’s Promise is a city-wide collaborative working to improve outcomes for youth from cradle to career; it has achieved measurable results on a number of indicators. Montgomery Moving Forward is mobilizing multi-sector leaders to address community needs, starting with workforce development, and has already achieved major public policy wins. And in Howard County, Collective Impact has informed the work of the Board to Promote Self-Sufficiency and creation of the Coordinated System of Homeless Services.

While Collective Impact holds great promise for harnessing community resources in innovative ways to make real progress on tough issues, implementation isn’t easy. Moving forward on all five conditions, building and coordinating relationships among multi-sector partners – it’s a lot to juggle.

The Collective Impact Affinity Group recently launched by Maryland Nonprofits serves as a resource and support for those engaged in, or interested in learning more about, this approach. It provides an opportunity to talk with peers about what’s working, brainstorm strategies to deal with obstacles, and learn from each other.

I’m facilitating the Group’s meetings, so let me know if you’d like more information – or to let us know how you’re using Collective Impact in your community. We’d love to compile a list of all the efforts already underway in Maryland (or in the planning stages) as one of our resources. I can be reached at lois@lkmconsults.com.