Harnessing Collective Impact: Cross-Sector Collaboration and Large-Scale Social Change

By Becky Kanis, June 28, 2011 - 8:39am

Collective Impact is a framework for thinking about how you solve complex social problems — the really important things that affect all of our well-being, the big questions.

This spring, Corinne LeTourneau and I attended the sold-out FSG and Stanford Social Innovation Review’s Conference on Collective Impact at Stanford University. Collective Impact is an emerging way of approaching large-scale social change, one that resonates deeply with the vision and strategic direction of Community Solutions.

Collective Impact is a framework for thinking about how you solve complex social problems—the really important things that affect all of our well-being, big questions like:

  • How do we increase the high school graduation rate?
  • How do we reduce violence in our society?
  • How can we help everyone be as healthy as possible?  
  • How can we protect the environment?  
  • How can we make sure everyone has access to healthy foods?
  • How can we end homelessness?  

The last question borders on an obsession for the team of the newly formed Community Solutions.  It is in our DNA and has led us down paths that have helped us develop enduring partnerships and genuine friendships with like-minded people who are equally obsessed with some of the other questions listed above.  Many of our colleagues who are working on making the world a better place stand at a similar crossroad:  Do we “copy and paste” successful non-profit models, or do we embrace Collective Impact?

The Days of Replicating Good Non-Profit Programs Are Over

John Kania, managing director of FSG, distilled the essential elements of Collective Impact during his inspiring and thought-provoking keynote at the conference.  At the heart of Collective Impact is the notion that the days of replicating the good non-profit program are over (for several reasons); that if we truly want to have impact on society by solving complex social problems, we need to intentionally work across sectors,  weaving together the efforts of non-profits with government, philanthropy, and business.  This perspective mirrors our experience with supportive housing development and the work we’ve done to end street homelessness in New York City’s Times Square:  There is no way our efforts would have succeeded in having impact without full partnership across these sectors.

It is tempting to imagine that we could just replicate our successful real estate development and outreach programs; however, in our work with communities across the United States over the past several years, from Los Angeles to New Orleans, to Hartford, to Washington, DC, and Brownsville in Brooklyn, we have experienced first-hand the humility that comes from what John Kania so eloquently insisted in his keynote:  “In solving complex social problems, there are no silver bullets.  The answer is complex, it’s not known in advance, and it’s the people who have the problem that need to solve the problem. Get comfortable with that fact.” We could not agree more: It is only in the messy work of weaving together partners across sectors, forging consensus on a shared goal, transparently sharing data, and willingly adjusting course, that the impact we all seek is slowly but surely realized.

Only Local, Cross-Sector Leadership Can Crack the Code

As we look to the future, with all the optimism and enthusiasm that comes with launching a new non-profit organization, and all the wisdom and experience we’ve gleaned from our decades of direct service and years of humble learning with partners from across the country and across the sectors, Community Solutions has a firm foothold in the Collective Impact approach.  The 100,000 Homes Campaign  has as its first step to “build a strong, local team” that includes stakeholders from across the sectors, a shared aim, and transparent data sharing.

When we say “build a strong, local team,” we mean recruit and work closely with leaders from all four sectors represented by Collective Impact:  the social benefit or non-profit sector, local government, the business sector, and philanthropists.  Examples of bringing all four sectors to the local campaign team are rare as of this writing, but we have noticed a few preliminary trends.  Many campaign teams engage only the non-profit and government sectors.  On the positive side, these teams can mobilize quickly.  These teams are vulnerable, though, to changes in administrations, so the sooner they can weave in partners from the other sectors, the better.  While campaign teams with representation from all four sectors tend to take longer to ramp up their registry weeks and housing placement efforts, once they begin, they tend to be much better equipped to sustain their momentum and institute systemic changes that will continue beyond the initial campaign push.  Although representation from all four sectors is probably the ideal, we’ve seen strong performance from teams that have leadership from at least three sectors.

Community Solutions has much to learn from and contribute to Collective Impact as a framework for solving complex social problems.  We are grateful to FSG and Stanford Social Innovation Review for including us in their conference!  Look for more in depth discussion of these emerging trends from us in the near future!

For my next blog, I will share my thoughts on “building credibility instead of taking credit” another hallmark of the Collective Impact paradigm shift. 

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