Collective impact: Evidence and implications for practice

CFCA Paper No. 45 – November 2017

What is collective impact?

One approach that is frequently employed in a place-based setting is collective impact. Although collective impact could be employed in another way, the majority of collective impact projects are place-based. Collective impact is based on the premise that existing approaches to creating social impact are ineffective for solving complex social issues and a different approach is needed when addressing complexity. The current approach where single organisations address specific issues is termed "isolated impact" (Kania & Kramer, 2011). This is contrasted with collective impact, where stakeholders collaborate across sectors to address complex social issues in local communities (Christens & Inzeo, 2015; Kania & Kramer, 2011).

The term "collective impact" was coined by Kania and Kramer (2011) of FSG Consulting, in 2011, in an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The collective impact framework consists of five conditions drawn from case studies of collaborative projects that have achieved population-level change.

The original theory of collective impact is laid out in three "foundational articles" (LeChasseur, 2016) published by FSG Consulting in the Stanford Social Innovation Review between 2011 and 2013 (Hanleybrown, Kania, & Kramer, 2012; Kania & Kramer, 2011, 2013). Collective impact theorises that meeting the five conditions will lead to population-level change on complex social issues through the emergence and implementation of previously unidentified or unachievable solutions (Kania & Kramer, 2013). The five conditions are described in Figure 1 and Box 1.

Figure 1: Five conditions of collective impact

Five conditions of collective impact

Source: Preskill, Parkhurst, & Splansky Juster, 2014

Collective impact has been rapidly adopted in the years since its inception, particularly in the United States, Canada and Australia. The original five conditions are now supplemented by a rapidly growing body of literature that includes additional or updated sets of conditions, pre-conditions, principles and phases, and most of which is published online rather than in academic journals. Collective impact is grounded in practice, and although initially described as an entirely new way of working (Kania & Kramer, 2011), collective impact is more accurately described as a "distillation" of existing knowledge and practice wisdom into a concise set of conditions that can guide collaborative work (Cabaj & Weaver, 2016). The inclusion of a shared measurement system and the focus on dedicated resources via the backbone organisation are unique elements of collective impact that differentiate it from other models of network-based collaboration (Salignac, Wilcox, Marjolin, & Adams, 2017).

Collective impact is not a solution but rather a problem-solving process that enables solutions to emerge through the application of the collective impact framework (Preskill et al., 2014). The concept of emergence comes from complexity science and systems theory and in collective impact is used to describe events or outcomes that develop from interactions between the many interdependent actors and variables. In complex systems, the outcomes of interventions cannot be predicted or controlled (Kania & Kramer, 2013).

This is different to the application of "technical solutions", which to date has been the predominant method of problem solving in the social services sector (Kania, Hanleybrown, & Splansky Juster, 2014). A technical solution can be implemented by a single individual or organisation and the outcome can be predicted with some certainty, whereas the complex and wicked problems that collective impact seeks to address have no known solutions, require input and knowledge from a range of stakeholders across different sectors, and the outcomes of interventions that seek to address them are unpredictable (Senge, Hamilton, & Kania, 2015).

Box 1: Five conditions of collective impact

Π1. A common agenda

The stakeholders within a collective impact initiative must hold a shared vision for the initiative that incorporates a joint understanding of the social issue that they are trying to affect and agreement upon actions to be undertaken to create change (Kania & Kramer, 2011).

 2. Continuous communication

In order to build trust among collective impact stakeholders, continuous communication is required. It is recommended that this take the form of regular meetings between high-level leaders over several years (Kania & Kramer, 2011).

3. Backbone support organisation

Collaborative work requires a supportive infrastructure in the form of dedicated staff and resources. Backbone support organisations have six essential functions: overseeing strategic direction; facilitating stakeholder communication; monitoring data collection and analysis; managing funding; coordinating community outreach; and communications (Hanleybrown et al., 2012).

4. Mutually reinforcing activities

A collective impact approach requires that stakeholders' actions are coordinated. Stakeholders are likely to be undertaking different actions but these actions should all contribute to the same goal, and should complement each other as outlined by an overarching plan of action (Kania & Kramer, 2011).

5. Shared measurement

The stakeholders involved in the initiative collaboratively develop a set of shared indicators against which progress is measured. It is expected that once data is collected against these indicators, the stakeholders will regularly meet to refine strategies based on their results. The backbone support organisation plays a key role in enabling shared measurement, potentially training, facilitating, collating or reviewing data or data collection methods (Hanleybrown et al., 2012).

Collective impact was developed in the United States and although there are examples of collective impact projects across the world, the majority of projects are in North America and Australia (Salignac et al., 2017). There are important contextual differences between North America and Australia that influence the way collective impact is interpreted and practised; however, due to the emerging nature of the field, the literature, particularly academic literature, is limited and most has originated in North America.

Box 2 presents an overview of collective impact in Australia drawing on the available literature and supplemented by discussion with Kerry Graham, the Managing Director of Collaboration for Impact, lecturer with the Centre for Social Impact and consultant on a range of collective impact projects across Australia. This section was further informed through discussions with Sue West and Tim Moore from the Centre for Community Child Health. Both have considerable experience in place-based approaches.

Two current Australian collective impact projects, Logan Together and the Blue Mountains Stronger Families Alliance, are examined in Box 3 and Box 4.

Box 2: Collective impact in Australia

Collective impact has been enthusiastically adopted in Australia. It is estimated that there are more than 80 collective impact-style projects currently being implemented across the country (Graham & Weaver, 2016). Despite the rapid proliferation of projects, collective impact remains a new and emerging phenomenon that is "still taking shape in Australia" (Salignac et al., 2017, p. 12), particularly when compared with the United States and Canada (Graham & Weaver, 2016; Moore & West, 2016 [personal communication]) where it is more established.

When the original article on collective impact was published in 2011 it resonated in Australia. Collaborative networks and alliances recognised themselves and their work in the description and the five conditions outlined by Kania and Kramer (2011), resulting in a proliferation of Australian collective impact initiatives that either began in response to the framework or applied the framework retrospectively to their work (Salignac et al., 2017). The uptake of collective impact in Australia is both part and extension of the place-based work focused on sites of entrenched disadvantage (Graham & Weaver, 2016) that developed in the 1990s with interventions based on principles of place management, service coordination and community engagement (Cortis, 2008). Graham believes that the collective impact framework has added a lens of complexity to the place-based work that was already being done in Australia (Graham & Weaver, 2016).

The majority of the research and commentary around collective impact is coming from North America; however, there are important differences in the Australian context that influence the application of the collective impact framework. In Australia, there is a smaller philanthropic sector and a greater role for all levels of government than in the United States or Canada, where the government plays a lesser role in service funding and service provision (Salignac et al., 2017). The role of government becomes even more significant in rural and remote areas of Australia where it may be one of the only funders or service providers (Graham, 2017 [personal communication]).

One of the impacts of the larger role of government in service provision in Australia is a more programmatic focus within the social services sector and less flexibility and community responsiveness that means service providers are demonstrating accountability to their contract rather than the needs of the community (Graham, 2017 [personal communication]). Another consequence of the greater role of government as a service provider and funder means a smaller philanthropic sector that is less diverse and innovative than the United States, and less likely to invest in systems change initiatives as opposed to programmatic interventions (Graham, 2017 [personal communication]).

There also appears to be greater flexibility within Australia in the way sites are implementing the collective impact framework when compared with the United States (Graham, 2017 [personal communication]; Moore & West, 2016 [personal communication]), particularly with regard to the level of community engagement and collaboration. The history of community development in Australia, the influence of the shift towards co-design of services and, particularly in Indigenous communities, principles of self-determination, have resulted in a greater number of collective impact projects that demonstrate genuine inclusion of communities and understand the need for grassroots change and leadership (Graham, 2017 [personal communication]).

Implementation of collective impact in Australia is diverse. While some sites are engaged with the collective impact literature, learning from and sharing their experiences with other sites and including community members as equal stakeholders, there are other sites that are only adopting some elements of the framework.