Can collective impact work here?

August 5, 2014 by
Filed under: The RSA 

Like a reformed smoker I am lifetime policy wonk who has now turned against my former habit. This is how I put the argument in a recently co-authored review article on ippr’s recent Condition of Britain report:

This is not, of course, to say that policy is dead. The point is that most social policy goals involve what Jocelyn Bourgon, and her colleagues in the New Synthesis project on 21st century public administration, call ‘civic effects’, that is changing social norms and behaviours and increasing in the resilience and problem solving capacity of communities. But if this is the goal the success factors are as likely to be authentic leadership, convening new forms of dialogue and collaboration and creating varied platforms for local and individual initiative as policy codified in legislation. To put it another way, the centre left has tended to see social engagement as a facet of the transformative project of policy making but instead we should see policy as a facet (and sometimes even a relatively unimportant one) of the transformative task of social mobilisation.

One weakness of my argument has been a paucity of examples of purposive social change in which traditional policy played a small or subsidiary part (I have relied a little too much on the fat-busting Mayor of Oklahoma). So, I am relieved to rediscover the literature of collective impact.

In this piece from Stanford Social innovation Review, Fay Hanleybrown, John Kania and Mark Kramer build on earlier description of collective impact projects and their success factors. The original piece contained a table of five conditions for success which is so simple and convincing that I have it printed on to a card I carry around in my wallet.


In the second paper the authors provide more case studies of successful collective impact projects in areas ranging from tackling teenage binge drinking in a Massachusetts district to cutting homelessness in Calgary, Canada. These projects have a clear mission which the participants are willing to spend years working at, they are highly collaborative and combine expert agencies with community groups and concerned citizens.

Here are four extracts that help illustrate why collective impact is different than conventional policy making:

The most critical factor by far is an influential champion……. one who is passionately focused on solving a problem but willing to let the participants figure out the answers for themselves, rather than promoting his or her particular point of view     

Collective impact efforts are most effective when they build from what already exists; honoring current efforts and engaging established organizations, rather than creating an entirely new solution from scratch.

Strategic action frameworks are not static….They are working hypotheses of how the group believes it can achieve its goals, hypotheses that are constantly tested through a process of trial and error and updated to reflect new learnings, endless changes in the local context, and the arrival of new actors with new insights and priorities

One such intangible ingredient is, of all things, food. Ask Marjorie Mayfield Jackson, founder of the Elizabeth River Project, what the secret of her success was in building a common agenda among diverse and antagonistic stakeholders, including aggressive environmental activists and hard-nosed businessmen. She’ll answer, “Clam bakes and beer.”

Of course, national and local policy can facilitate collective impact projects (although on the whole it has been more likely to disrupt and deter them) and these projects may well end up identifying necessary policy reforms. However, the question posed by collective actors is ‘what can we do given the policy context we have’ much more than ‘how can we change that policy context’.

The Stanford piece doesn’t refer to a single UK project. After the original piece there was a flurry of interest in the UK,  including this post which kindly refers to the RSA but I can’t find much else. Am I missing something or is it that a combination of centralisation, austerity and short termism makes collective impact projects here just much harder to design and implement?

If so, I take that as a challenge to which we must try to rise.



  • Steven Byers

    I appreciate this essay. As you note, collective impact has been gaining some momentum in the United States for some time, even before it was called “collective impact.” One thing I would like to add, regarding measurement, is that I think it is crucial to ask, “What are we learning?” or “What have we learned?” Learning is every bit as important as increasing or decreasing some number, and often is required before those other numbers can be appropriately increased or decreased. If collective impact projects or collaborations focus on learning and sharing what is learned early on, they will do better later and also set a better example for others. Even collective impact projects are susceptible to “the rush to solution.”

    Are you familiar with the International Futures Forum? I think of them as taking a collective impact approach. You should connect with Graham Leicester, if you don’t already know him.


    Steve Byers

  • David

    A large collective action starts from a small, dedicated collective. It would be great to see the RSA using its large fellowship resource to achieve this.

    The RSA attracts lots of thoughtful, committed citizens but does not currently facilitate interaction and connection in any substantial way. The RSA can make itself a meeting place where these thoughtful committed citizens can come together, find like minds and do things.

  • Dawn O’Neil

    Love the challenge out to the UK community – it is surprising that Collective Impact hasn’t gained any traction in the social sector conversation as yet. Lets hope your article lights a fire! Collective Impact is certainly gaining traction in the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand!

  • Tessy Britton

    Hi Matthew

    We are very interested in Collective Impact — but seeing potential in leapfrogging the institutional facing CI that has been the focus of much of the work in the US — by bringing citizens more fully into those frameworks. Living Cities is a larger US project across several cities which has been doing a lot of work on this too – I think much of the traction you can see there has only happened in the last 2 years – so it is very early days on much of this — and very early indeed for setting such definitive codifying of processes and structures — but they do offer some early working models.

    It’s difficult terrain overall – but one worth pursuing I think if we want to effect long term change. Difficult because it forces so much change through our systems. Much deeper than partnerships or pooling resources it challenges organisations to re-organise themselves, sometimes entirely, disrupting governance, activity and models —- and demanding levels of shared/mutual accountability that many organisations would take a litte getting used to.

    I explored some of these ideas – relating to collective agency and system building in this post

  • Chris Wellings

    Save the Children’s ‘Children’s Communities’ (explored under the ambit of Children’s Zones) are an example of collective impact. They are long-term strategies for tackling the disadvantages children face – bringing together residents and key public, private and voluntary sector agencies from each locality. Aim is to create coordinated support for children from birth to early adulthood and across their family, school and community lives (incorporating individual programmes and services as part of a wider, strategic, closely evaluated approach).

    Best wishes
    Chris Wellings

  • Joe Hallgarten

    If you’re looking for UK examples of collective impact, it’s worth considering the huge fall in teenage pregnancy achieved in the last two decades.

    I am not sure it that this agenda really had an ‘influential champion’ – no teenage pregnancy tsar I can recall – but I think that it probably met all five of the conditions you describe.

    In addition, the programme to reduce teenage pregnancy was both clear about its end-point values (taking a clear stance that, in almost all situation, it is better for teenage girls to avoid pregnancy), but much more open, morally and pragmatically, about its means. For behavioural change that requires adaptive rather than technical solutions, this seems crucial. The programme also didn’t give up on its ‘failures’. The reduction in second pregnancies, and increase in education participation of teenage parents, are equally important parts of the success story.

    The challenge in our technocratic age is that collective impact strategies might only be able to be evaluated collectively, rather then isolate particular factors with any confidence. In the case of teenage pregnancy, increased GCSE scores and staying-on rates might have been more of a factor than any specific interventions, but this is impossible to ascertain. Does this matter, or might we need a different kind of rigour to understand collective impact?

    See Polly Toynbee’s analysis here.

  • Matthew Mezey

    I would’ve thought that these collective impact approaches might fruitfully make use of large group interventions like ‘Future Search’ (one of the few approaches that is said to simultaneously recognise all the multiple facets of ‘Cultural Theory’).

    Here are some case studies from various sectors where it has been used:
    They seem to have got it right on the need to ‘get the whole system into the room’, if any real change is to endure.

    But I’m guessing that kindred methods – Open Space, Real Time Strategic Change, Art of Hosting et al – all have their successes.

    I’m sure Tessy will know how these large group methods relate to collective impact…

    As I’ve mentioned before, it also looks to me like the new method of project evaluation known as ‘Developmental Evaluation’ will work better in understanding civic effects, systems, emergence etc than more linear and mechanical approaches. Here’s one link about it:

    I recently came across an empoweringly simple and DIY approach to large group interventions – ‘Liberating Structures’:
    It has its own field stories too:

    As they write: “When Liberating Structures become part of everyday use, elements of each lens come into play. Robust efforts feel more like a movement than a project. Innovations and new strategy emerge from the grass roots up as new voices are included and unleashed. With the imagination and resources at hand, much more is possible.”

    I like that they even offer an Inclusion and Engagement Quotient questionnaire, so that we can all gauge how much potential there is for us to make our meetings more engaging and creative:

    (Though my own experience in this area mostly relates to the use of great ‘Technology of Participation’ methods like the ICA’s ‘Consensus workshop’ – as many RSA staff and Fellows will also have experienced).

    Matthew Mezey
    (RSA Online Community Manager)

  • Pingback: From Poverty to Power » Which is more important – changing policies, or changing social norms and behaviours (and how are they connected)?()

  • Pingback: Change policy? Or change social norms and behaviours? | Matthew's Journal()

  • Ian Christie

    Thanks for this post, Matthew. It is a powerful approach. One reason for this is that the CI framework seems to me to have much in common with two sets of age-old institutions for cooperation, conflict management and community-building. One is the organisation of religious communities at their best (and they often aren’t). The other is the framework developed by the great political economist Elinor Ostrom to understand how societies have successfully managed commons (eg forests) over long periods.

    There are also lots of connections with the community organising movement in the USA and beyond – see the work of Citizens UK and the literature on community action in the USA (eg Roots for Radicals by Edward Chambers).