• Thank you for sharing this article with your NPQ readers.

    I am most familiar with Norwalk ACTS (CT) that works in close collaboration with and uses the Strive Together collective impact model primarily in the academic achievement realm, from early childhood education to career. A charity I serve is a leader in this coalition. I’ll share this article with the collaborative’s members.

    I had no idea of the depth and history of this field. I took to the SSIR (Kania & Kramer) article as a fan takes to the latest release by a favorite music artist.

    That may be the primary problem which gives rise to your ten points. Whose voices do we heed, let alone hear? NPQ’s longtime critique of “strategic philanthropy” comes into play here, its leading proponents not coincidentally hailing from the same elite academic club as SSIR.

    In every field, we have our celebrities, self-appointed masters of ceremonies, and we (the supplicants) cede authority to them. They are members of a similar class, which is the opposite of say members of a family (or a community of people for whom collective impact initiatives are designed to help).

    Members of a family are different from and complementary to one another. The grandmother, parents, children, dog, and cat are real members of a family, a similar class, but they are not interchangeable like the SSIR club members. Each person in a family (or community) is almost a species in herself. The grandmother and mother are as different as the dog and cat. If you subtract any one member, you have not just reduced the family in number; you have inflicted an injury on its structure. The proponents of “strategic philanthropy” change their minds, or retire, and you simply have a new field of celebrated inquiry emerge to replace it.

    The richness inherent in the kind of unity of what we find in a family or community is why we enjoy an old book and now new movie like Jungle Book. The extreme differentiation of persons is what we know intuitively to be our true refuge from monotony. But because of the questions you rhetorically ask in #6, we cede what we intuitively know is best (the wisdom of the many and pushy lessons learned over time), to embrace the latest release by the celebrities we most admire.

    • Bill Fulton

      Brilliant article, and a welcomed compilation of some of the important research and practice on which effective collaboration is built, and a powerful articulation of what I think many have probably been adding to the model in its local application. I appreciate both the critique and the call at the end to upgrade the collective impact framework rather than simply dismissing it. For whatever its limitations it has struck a nerve for many communities across the country. And in fairness, there are many champions of collective impact who have pushed the network to address many of these issues pointed out in this article. I think there is a sincere desire among both the theorists and practitioners of collective impact to deepen and enrich the approach, and hopefully this thoughtful article will go a long way in that regard. At the very least, I hope this article, and others it might generate in response, will introduce those who have been inspired by collective impact to the valuable traditions that precede it. We would all benefit from an expanded movement of partners in this difficult and important work.

  • Those of us who have admired and learned from Tom Wolff over the years
    can once again applaud his willingness to speak truth to power. In this
    case, Tom brilliantly critiques FSG’s multi-sector collaboration model
    it calls Collective Impact. At its core, Collective Impact is a clever
    re-branding and marketing of the ideas and practices of countless
    others, without attribution or any original research. Rather than
    thoughtfully addressing the well known challenges of collaborative
    community and systems change, FSG misleads us by claiming Collective
    Impact requires just five simple strategies that it “discovered” by
    observing a handful of partnerships. Unfortunately, many in the
    foundation community are celebrating and funding this “new shiny
    object,” rather than continuing support for proven models that must be
    funded more widely to take effective demonstrations of success to scale.
    It also is distressing to see Collective Impact “fall from the sky”
    without necessary attention to historical, political, and economic
    factors that must be addressed in order to significantly the transform
    existing power relations that oppress and damage so many people and
    communities.

  • Mathieu Despard

    Excellent article Tom! I especially appreciate your points about lack of voice among people affected and failing to acknowledge prior efforts and research. Collective Impact is not sufficiently distinct from cross-sector collaboration, coalitions, and other collective approaches to community problem-solving to warrant its coronation absent any evidence to support it as a new approach. Collective Impact really isn’t much different than what I was doing with a local United Way in the late 1990s with “community care portfolios” and collaborative efforts like Success By 6.

  • ahmad mansur

    Really great points. I would add that the “collective impact” model does nothing to push the needle for innovation, something sorely needed in organizing communities. CI is mainly a coordinating principle for status quo engagements. It’s does nothing to push the boundaries of business model innovation spawning from experimentation and/or disruptive new ventures.

  • Cynthia Gibson

    This is a smart and thoughtful critique of a concept that, indeed, has been around for decades (as the author notes, there’s a value to digging into the literature before claiming something is new) but has been repackaged as something unprecedented and, as the teaser notes, “without the teeth.” Unfortunately, attempts to point this out previously have been somewhat dismissed as either “negative” carping or being hopelessly out of step with “innovation.” You know it’s really a concern when even some funders are afraid to raise questions about it publicly. Nevertheless, millions of dollars have been spent in the name of this “new” model, while community-based groups that have been engaged in this work for a very long time (and with proven results) hang by a thread. Although some may bemoan the sector’s unwillingness or inability to question ideas or approaches that may not be what they appear, perhaps the real enablers are those who continue to provide financial support and public validation to them without doing the kind of due diligence that’s critical to determining whether something is really “new” or not.

  • Third Sector Radio USA

    Here I am joining the conversation late, again. Dr. Wolff does indeed make good points about collective impact. Done well, it could make a difference in communities, but it is so rarely done well. Hierarchical and linear “solutions” will address wicked problems minutely, at best.

    Serious efforts to resolve intractable problems requires a different way to collaborate, one in which leadership constantly shifts, organizations and the network constantly learn and adapt in order to coevolve with the environment. I am beginning to investigate the work communities have done with developmental evaluation in Canada, thanks largely to the support of the J. W. McConnell Family Foundation. I’m looking forward to reporting more later.

    Terry Fernsler, MNPL

  • Bill Fulton

    Brilliant article, and a welcomed compilation of some of the important research and practice on which effective collaboration is built, and a powerful articulation of what I think many have probably been adding to the model in its local application. I appreciate both the critique and the call at the end to upgrade the collective impact framework rather than simply dismissing it. For whatever its limitations it has struck a nerve for many communities across the country. And in fairness, there are many champions of collective impact who have pushed the network to address many of these issues pointed out in this article. I think there is a sincere desire among both the theorists and practitioners of collective impact to deepen and enrich the approach, and hopefully this thoughtful article will go a long way in that regard. At the very least, I hope this article, and others it might generate in response, will introduce those who have been inspired by collective impact to the valuable traditions that precede it. We would all benefit from an expanded movement of partners in this difficult and important work.

  • Great article. As a community organizer turned consultant, I am in deep alignment with your perspectives on meaningful engagement of those most impacted and addressing systems, policy and institutional inequities. Organizing efforts across the country have been creating coalitions and building impact collectively for decades, and the broad support of the Collective Impact (capital C, capital I) is a real opportunity to bring more folks into a dialogue about the capacity of coalition work. The broad support at an institutional level of the Collective Impact strategy shows that folks could see that the existing body of community and nonprofit work wasn’t reaching the scale that we needed it to to make expansive impact. The embracing of this model aligned with people’s yearning for something more. Your article is such an important piece of the dialogue to further the conversation about what potential this could have when done with even greater intention and investment. Bringing low-income residents to the table to have an authentic seat and decision-making power takes more time than most groups are willing to give, but when folks can create that space, and good organizers and staff know how to train residents well, the results are far more lasting.
    I do think that the move toward Collective Impact is ultimately a good thing for the nonprofit community and our work, and as with all things, the conversation must grow beyond the initial embracing of this strategy. It is certainly becoming richer due to work like this article. Thank you!

  • UnDiagnosing

    I am a member of a disenfranchised community (psychiatric survivors and the recovery movement). My experience of coalition work has been highly traumatizing, frustrating, and ultimately pointless. None of the coalitions I have experienced have made any significant headway on anything. I have started to give up on Coalition work or to form our own coalitions that don’t interact with the slow, beaurocratic, top down coalitions that get the attention. I posted an article here about one of my experiences getting beat up by the coalition process. http://www.madinamerica.com/2016/03/creating-community-solutions/

  • SophieB

    Thanks so much. This is an excellent and much needed article! There is a tremendous amount of substance here for anyone looking to engage in effective collaborative efforts.

  • Blythe Butler

    Thank you for the thoughtful article and the thoughtful comments from those who’ve posted before me.

    As someone who has been involved with implementing a ‘collective impact’ initiative for the last four years (actually, setting the pre-conditions for collective impact using an organic network model) I have often struggled to understand what the framework means in our context.

    Having said that, the power and value of using the Collective Impact framework to guide our work is directly correlated with our ability to adapt it to our context, understand how it could function to support our work; and make judgements about where it can’t.

    Having a framework to follow is neither necessary nor sufficient for social change. There is a huge difference between knowing what constituent parts make up any framework, or approach, or model, or program, or initiative – and knowing how & why that framework functions, and to what end. I wonder if the problem is less with the collective impact framework – or the 10 things it could do better for that matter – as much as it is a problem with our attraction simplistic ‘solutions’. We crave certainty. We want to have a simple way to know if we’re making progress, and a simple way to map out what progress might look like: but progress doesn’t work that way.

    We often say in our work that complex-adaptive challenges require complex-adaptive solutions… Most people nod their heads at that statement: we recognize that on the surface, but have very little capacity – individually or collectively – to put that into practice. Everything in our society feeds our desire for things to be simple, and certainly antiquated funding models in the social sector continue to feed a misunderstanding of complexity and the types of adaptation required to support transformational change.

    Why would we even assume that something presented as a framework would be the answer to all our problems? How can we support individuals, agencies, funders, communities, governments to have a greater tolerance for developing the capacity to assess, adapt, implement and learn from frameworks vs. assume they are the end-all-be-all? To me that’s the most important question to be asking ourselves, and then striving toward building a culture that supports our ability to understand frameworks in an adaptive way.

    Blythe Butler
    Atticus Insights & the First 2000 Days Network