Is Collective Impact transformative?

E ver since its debut in 2011, the concept of “Collective Impact” has offered the hope that citizens, acting together, can productively address the “wicked problems” confronting our communities. As set forth in their Stanford Social Innovation Review article, Kania and Kramer explained that collaborative initiatives will yield the collective impact if they meet five criteria:

  1. A Common Agenda in which the participants share a vision for social change;
  2. A Shared Measurement System that embodies an agreement on how success will be measured;
  3. Mutually Reinforcing Activities in which participants align their actions toward their shared measures of success;
  4. Continuous Communication in order to build trust,learning and adaptation; and
  5. A Backbone Organization capable of providing supporting staff to the collaborative initiatives.

Collective Impact has its critics. At the same time, Cincinnati, arguably the birthplace of Collective Impact, continues to advance the model with the deep commitment of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation.

What is the likelihood that the Collective Impact approach will be transformative? Does it offer the hope of addressing multiple complex challenges across a wide range of communities? After all, our communities are hobbled by a wide range of wicked problems: homelessness, teenage homicides, high school dropouts, escalating racial tensions between police and communities, drug abuse epidemics, collapsing infrastructures. These problems are ambiguous. They have no clear cause and no easy solutions. They fall beyond the bounds of any one organization to address.

To understand whether Collective Impact can be a transformative model for addressing these wicked problems, we should start by defining our term. Let me postulate that for an approach like Collective Impact to be considered transformative, it should meet three criteria. It should be replicable, scalable and sustainable.

Is Collective Impact Replicable?

Replication involves establishing a set of explicit protocols and skills that can be taught. Academics talk about the difference between “tacit knowledge” and “explicit knowledge”. We carry tacit knowledge around in our heads. It’s difficult to transfer, because we have not spent the time to understand how to verbalize this knowledge or write it down. So, we have the tacit knowledge of what our best friend, Sally, looks like, but we have difficulty describing Sally to another person with enough detail so that he can spot Sally in a crowd. In contrast, we can communicate explicit knowledge to others. We have explicit knowledge of Sally’s cell phone number. We can pass it on in a text message. Simply by writing down the criteria to define Collective Impact, Kania and Kramer have opened the door to replication.

Simply by writing down the criteria to define Collective Impact, Kania and Kramer have opened the door to replication.

The fact that there is an active Collective Impact Forum and that a network in Australia has moved to replicate the model is a good indication that Collective Impact is a replicable model of social transformation. So, yes, Collective Impact appears to be replicable.

Is Collective Impact Scalable?

Scalability is a more difficult concept and a more challenging requirement of transformation. It refers to the capacity of a system to be changed in size. We often think of scalability in terms of whether or not the system can grow, become larger. In this context, scalability is tied to replication. If we have a successful high school dropout prevention program that works in one high school, can the same approach work in 10 high schools? In 50? In 100?

At the same time, scalability implies moving to smaller scales. If a drop-out initiative works in a large metro region, can it work in a smaller rural region? Collective Impact can work in Cincinnati, but can it work in Scott County, Indiana, the scene of a devastating HIV outbreak? This line of thinking raises questions about what how much time, money and effort does a community need to invest upfront to replicate Collective Impact. If Scott County needs to hire an expensive consultant and it takes six months of training civic leaders to replicate Collective Impact, then the model is not very scalable to smaller communities.

Scalability is also tied to the cost structure of the initiative, what an accountant would call “operating leverage”, or the ratio of fixed to variable costs. Let me explain why this is important. Assume we have two initiatives that are equally effective in reducing high school dropouts. Initiative A relies totally on volunteer collaboration among civic organizations within a community. The school system, the Chamber of Commerce, and the United Way all work together to intervene with at risk students. Initiative B, in contrast, relies on hiring staff of three counselors across the school district. The fully loaded cost of this staff is $250,000.

Scalability is also tied to the cost structure of the initiative, what an accountant would call “operating leverage”.

Based on this example, you can see that Initiative A is more scalable than Initiative B. Initiative A can be adapted to both large and small scale communities. It can spread more easily to more places. It is more scalable. Initiative B requires a threshold investment of $250,000. Small-scale communities cannot easily fund this commitment. Further, the threshold will slow the adoption of the initiative by other communities. It is less scalable.

The requirement that Collective Impact initiatives have a Backbone Organization reduces its scalability, but does not eliminate it. The question of scalability is also tied to the third characteristic of transformation, sustainability. If Collective Impact is sustainable, it can overcome the challenges of scalability.

Is Collective Impact Sustainable?

Sustainability is about continuously creating value. If an initiative creates value and is able to capture a portion of that value to fund its operations, then it can be sustainable. By definition, sustainability is not achieved through one-time or limited time grant funding from governments or foundations. Rather, sustainability emerges from a business model that describes clear value propositions and explains how value will be both created and captured. Not surprisingly, this last element of transformation is the most difficult.

The last element of transformation — sustainability –is the most difficult.

Sustainability is closely tied to scalability. In our previous example, Initiative A relies only on volunteers. The chances that sponsors can come up with a business model that is sustainable is more likely with initiative A, as opposed to initiative B, burdened by fixed costs.

In the case of Cincinnati, the Greater Cincinnati Foundation has, for the time being, provided an answer to the problem of sustainability. But not every community can rely on a community foundation to sustain its Collective Impact initiatives. Are there other funding models? Perhaps. But here, we run into the practical realities and politics of government and foundation funding. These programs tend to be highly prescriptive. They generally do not embrace the collective habit of experimentation that nurtures the innovation we need to address “wicked problems”.

How sustainable is Collective Impact as a model of transformation? It’s not clear. Again, the requirement of a Backbone Organization poses some significant financial and political challenges in many communities.

Is Collective Impact Transformative?

The answer is, not yet. Addressing the challenges of scalability and sustainability more clearly will move Collective Impact down that path.

A final note: Governments and foundations — the primary investors in solutions to “wicked problems” — would do well to explore how a more disciplined approach to transformation could improve the productivity of their investments. We have launched far too many pilot projects without a clear understanding of how they could replicate, scale and sustain themselves.

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