Reflections on Collective Impact

September 10, 2014
Author: Pro Bono Australia

Those of us who have worked (and struggled) to achieve long term whole-of-community change owe it to ourselves and the communities we work in to take the potential of Collective Impact seriously, writes David Lilley, Collective Impact Consultant, with United Way Australia.

I’m someone who has worked to address place-based disadvantage for many years, and I’ve seen quite a few methods and approaches come and go. Just a few of these include: community development; integrated services; integrated governance; and place management.

There is something valuable in all of them. However none have really been effective in addressing entrenched place-based disadvantage, on a large scale, over a significant period of time.

Collective Impact has become the new buzz word. It is written about in journals, spoken about at conferences, and various organisations now claim to be ‘doing’ Collective Impact. This leads to some fairly obvious questions: is it really any different to what has come before, and will it work in practice? I think the answer to both of these questions is yes.

Earlier this week I had the privilege of hearing Bill Crim from United Way of Salt Lake, USA, discuss his Collective Impact journey. Like many of us Bill has seen millions of dollars poured into addressing social issues in disadvantaged communities, with some positive results for individual program participants, but no long term change in community wide indicators. In fact, at the community level things have often declined further. Bill calls this ‘the results paradox’.

In response to this dilemma, a couple of years ago Bill and his colleagues adopted the Collective Impact approach, the core elements of which include:

A Common Agenda

Shared Measurement

Mutually Reinforcing Activities

Continuous Communication

Backbone Support

While it sounds like a cliché, listening to Bill was inspirational. He and his colleagues have taken a rigorous approach to Collective Impact, and they are seeing results.

The vision Bill and his colleagues work to is “A community in which all individuals and families achieve their human potential through education, income stability, and healthy lives”.

He explained that lots of people will say you can’t achieve this, and you will fail if you try. And indeed you will using traditional approaches in which:

  • Funders select individual grantees
  • Organisations work separately and compete
  • Evaluation is concerned with isolating the impact of individual organisations, and
  • Large scale change is assumed to depend on scaling organisations.