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The Promise of Collective Impact

On August 8th, Mark Kramer, founder and managing director of Foundation Strategy Group (FSG) shared a bold vision for social change with GCN members and philanthropic leaders at a series of GCN-hosted events.

Mark Kramer

The conventional model of philan­thropy works, says FSG’s Mark Kramer, but only to a point. Though individual nonprofits are uniquely positioned to “understand issues in ways that for-profit and government do not” and “deliver services and benefits where there’s no economic model to support them,” the approach falls short in tackling complex social issues. Regardless, says Kramer, “the social sector remains focused on the isolated intervention of individual organizations.

And because problems like a dysfunc­tional state education system or a failing public-health policy are so complex and involve so many players, their solutions will be similarly complex, and require more than a single nonprofit to pull off: “It isn’t like baking a cake, or even like sending a rocket to the moon,” says Kramer. “You can’t solve these problems with a recipe.” Borrowing a phrase from former Vice President Al Gore, Kramer says that we may not have a silver bullet, but “we do have silver buckshot—lots of little things we can do that together make a big difference.” Kramer calls that silver buckshot Collective Impact, and though it’s a still-emerging approach to philanthropic and nonprofit action, it has already made some remarkable progress in communities across the U.S. and beyond.

The way we work now.

At this moment, the dominant ap­proach taken by funders and nonprofits is what Kramer terms isolated impact: “nearly 1.4 million nonprofits trying to invent indepen­dent solutions to major social problems.” The hope, of course, is that the most effective organizations will grow or replicate to scale their impact, but Kramer reports “there is scant evidence that isolated initiatives are the best way to solve many social problems in today’s complex and interdependent world.”

We may not have a silver bullet, but “we do​ have silver buckshot— lots of little things we can do that together make a big difference.”

And working in isolation is inefficient, besides: “When nonprofits define their goals independently and, worse, when they each measure progress in different ways for different funders, it prevents learning. They can’t compare performance to see which approaches are more effective than others.”

A better way to catalyze change.

Kramer envisions a future where it’s the norm—not the exception—for funders and nonprofits to work alongside government, businesses and the public to tackle complex problems through ambitious pro­grams of concerted action. Under a Collective Impact model, a given stakeholder (often a leading founda­tion or nonprofit) takes responsibility for “setting up a centralized infra­structure and a structured process” that unites all players around five key strategies: a common agenda, a shared set of measurements, open and continuous communication, mutually reinforcing activities among all participants, and a “backbone” support structure to keep it all together.

Resources & Reading:Visit the Knowledge Exchange section of FSG.org, an interactive hub for ideas, research, and discussions about social impact.
Read Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits, by Leslie Crutchfield & Heather McLeod Grant. Kramer: “an excellent recipe for nonprofits to magnify their impact.”
Listen to our podcast, A Conversation with Mark Kramer, below.

Kramer challenges funders to catalyze this process by “holding themselves accountable not only for giving away money, but for making progress on the issue.” While funders tend to ask, Which organization should I support and how much money shall I give them?, they need to ask, How can I assemble a campaign that achieves measurable impact? In other words, they should take a problem-solving approach rather than thinking only in terms of investment, putting to use all available tools, including “engaging with government through advocacy and lobbying.” They must also push to acquire actionable knowledge, “not just academic research and evaluation of past grant makers, but knowledge that will change behavior in them­selves and others.”

Working in alignment.

Cincinnati’s Strive Together Partnership is what Kramer calls a “remarkable example” of Collective Impact in action. A nonprofit subsidiary of KnowledgeWorks, started in 2006, Strive has brought together more than 300 organizations in Cincinnati and northern Kentucky to improve educational outcomes for K-12 students, a massive mobilization involving local non­profit education and advocacy groups, the heads of influential private and corporate foundations, city government officials, school district representatives and the presidents of eight universities and community colleges.

Previously, explains Kramer, each of the area’s nonprofits had been delivering valuable services—from after-school programs to tutoring— that nonetheless did little to address the need for system-wide improve­ments: “You can’t be successful by trying to fix just one point on the educational continuum,” says Kramer.

The solution was “an entire cradle-to­ career continuum” that implemented improvements at every stage and in every arena of a student’s life. Bringing everyone together under one umbrella, aligning their goals and measurements, instituting frequent meetings, and coordinating their activities, Strive has reported impressive gains on more than 50 shared measurements. Having followed Strive’s progress over the past six years, Kramer’s sense of possibility was transformed: here was evidence that funders, nonprofits and others working in alignment were moving the needle in a way that individual action never could.

Not that individual nonprofits were giving up their individual missions: “Different organizations have different abilities,” says Kramer. “Each needs to do what they do best, but coordi­nated with others.” To accomplish this, the leaders of each Strive partner organization—all 300 of them—meet every two weeks to develop shared performance indicators, discuss progress, learn from each other and, most importantly, align their efforts to support each other.

Kramer’s sense of possibility was transformed: here was evidence that nonprofits, funders, and others working in alignment were moving the needle in a way that individual action never could.

Kramer is excited to report that the momentum is growing. He has been studying the work of other Collective Impact initiatives making progress on critical issues that, like education, require many different players to change their behavior. He cites dozens of examples, each tackling a complex community or global issue—substance abuse, juvenile justice, poverty, childhood obesity, end-of-life care, sustainable agriculture, nutrition and the environ­ment. To name a few, there are the community-based Opportunity Chicago, Memphis Fast Forward and Calgary Homeless Foundation initiatives; the worldwide Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition; and new Strive Partnerships forming in communities across the U.S. Again and again, Kramer sees evidence of substantial progress when nonprofits, government, businesses and the public gather around a common agenda with clear goals.

The shock of the possible.

But in order to get started, there are three key conditions to meet: you’ll need “an urgency for change, an influential champion and,” of course, “financial resources.” You’ll also need, in all likelihood, to change the way you think about your work.

Kramer acknowledges that a move to Collective Impact can be a “shock to the system,” requiring a dramatic “mindset shift” and a serious adjust­ment in expectations on the part of both funders and nonprofits. “But it’s a form of shock therapy that’s badly needed,” he says. It involves recogniz­ing that, for complex problems, “the solution is a messy, long-term process of gradual social change,” necessitating collaborative thinking and working, developing and partner­ing in shared measurement systems, practicing “adaptive leadership” and understanding that “ultimately, the people who have the problem must be the ones to solve it.”

The bottom line, says Kramer, is that the work is never truly over, but that formalized collaboration is the key to reaching long-term, system-wide goals. For Collective Impact to succeed, you’ll need to be patient while simultaneously maintaining your sense of urgency—what Kramer calls “an attitude of burning patience” that will fuel you through the long haul: “This is not a sprint, after all. It’s a marathon.”

A Conversation with Mark Kramer

Betsy Reid is Communications Director at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits and editor of Georgia Nonprofit NOW.


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2.04.22 | Online