questions about “collective impact”

The concept of “Collective Impact” suddenly seems to be everywhere. No meeting is complete without it. FSG defines it as “the commitment of a group of actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a complex social problem.” And they propose five conditions:

Common Agenda: All participants share a vision for change that includes a common understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving the problem through agreed-upon actions.

Shared Measurement: All participating organizations agree on the ways success will be measured and reported, with a short list of common indicators identified and used for learning and improvement.

Mutually Reinforcing Activities: A diverse set of stakeholders, typically across sectors, coordinate a set of differentiated activities through a mutually reinforcing plan of action.

Continuous Communication: All players engage in frequent and structured open communication to build trust, assure mutual objectives, and create common motivation.

Backbone Support: An independent, funded staff dedicated to the initiative provides ongoing support by guiding the initiative’s vision and strategy, supporting aligned activities, establishing shared measurement practices, building public will, advancing policy, and mobilizing resources.

I definitely see the purpose and value of such efforts, but I would pose these questions for critical reflection whenever the framework is being used:

  1. When is a group with a shared agenda and “backbone” organization a “collaboration” or a “community of practice,” and when is it a cartel or a clique?
  2. When is reducing competition among NGOs a valuable a way of reducing waste and allowing them to work toward a broader goal, and when is reducing competition a way of protecting incumbent organizations from challenges by newcomers? (In short, when is a cooperating group a monopoly?)
  3. Who gets to decide on the common agenda, and to whom are they accountable?
  4. What makes you eligible to join the “diverse set of stakeholders”

(A civics textbook would say that the people should ultimately decide on the agenda for their community, mainly by choosing elected representatives who deliberate and vote–all subject to judicial review. We already have a smooth tessellation of political jurisdictions across America, each with its own elected leaders. But in the Collective Impact model, governmental agencies are just some of the “participating organizations.” )

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.