The four components of collective impact are needed to improve systems on behalf of low-income people.

We can all acknowledge that there’s a lot of hype around collective impact right now. The social sector (Living Cities included) has swarmed toward this framework as the tool needed to finally solve the complex and seemingly intractable problems facing low-income communities and communities of color.

Yet even with so many change agents corralling around the approach, many are still unclear as to what exactly constitutes the quality and rigorous application of a collective impact approach.

And who are they to blame? Between FSG, the national StriveTogether network, and even us at Living Cities, the field uses many seemingly different frameworks to describe what it means to apply a collective impact approach. These differences mostly exist because we each have different audiences. And, since language is critical to catalyzing behavior change, it needs to meet people where they are.

Fortunately, even if Living Cities, StriveTogether and FSG use slightly different words (tailored for our respective audiences) and approach collective impact from slightly different vantage points, the core components are the same: a collective impact approach consists of a cross-sector partnership that has collectively agreed to a shared result it aims to achieve with a commitment to change behavior and build feedback loops to measure progress towards its goals.

1. A Cross-Sector Partnership

Leaders from across different sectors are needed to address the complexity of our cities’ most pressing problems.

Leaders from across different sectors are needed to address the complexity of our cities’ most pressing problems. To support children from cradle to career, for example, we need school districts, business leaders, higher education institutions, community based organizations and all other relevant stakeholders to work together. No one sector or institution is solely responsible for student and youth outcomes, so a cross-sector approach is needed.

The Collective Impact field often talks about these partnerships as being coordinated by backbone organizations. And while backbone functions are critical for holding the vision of the partnership and for coordinating the cross-sector partners themselves, backbone organizations will ultimately need to work themselves out of a job by facilitating the alignment of policies, practices and programs to truly create systems change on behalf of low-income people.

Regardless of who provides the organizing functions that keep a cross-sector partnership together and focused on its task, the key element here is that cross-sector leaders are able to convene and come together in a sustained, long term way.

2. A Shared Result

What makes collective impact powerful is when the cross-sector partnership comes together around a shared result that all members are committed to. Some people call these BHAGs - big, hairy audacious goals - that have no clear solution and that require multiple sectors to collectively define the problem and develop a shared vision of solutions. While a strong shared result will balance being both ambitious and achievable, the final scope will of course depend on local context.

Across the field, collective impact practitioners and thought leaders alike agree that a collectively and clearly defined result is critically important. Indeed, a shared result is part of what distinguishes collective impact from other forms of collaboration by giving the partnership a guiding “north star” that’s grounded in concrete improvements in the lives of low-income communities.

3. A Commitment to Changing Ways of Working

Just as important as forming a cross-sector partnership and collectively defining a shared result is the actual commitment by each organization to change their ways of working. After deciding on a shared result, all partners at the table need to fully commit to change their behavior in service of the outcomes they’re trying to drive on behalf of low-income people. If partnership members aren’t willing to pivot away policies and programs that are not producing the desired outcomes for low-income communities, then they are not truly applying a collective impact approach.

Really, this principle is the mindset of committing to continuous improvement. Partnership members need to commit to actually changing their policies and practices to align with strategies that are actually producing results. While this may sound straightforward, it’s often easier said than done. Institutions attempting to pivot away from practices that aren’t producing results can easily trigger resistance and adaptive challenges. The key is to stay focused on the shared result and to collectively agree on ways to measure progress. Speaking of which…

4. Feedback Loops

The fourth component is the only way to know whether or not any of these efforts are actually improving outcomes for low-income communities and communities of color: feedback. While a commitment to behavior change is the cultural mindset needed for effective collective impact, feedback loops are the process for actually doing it. Combined, both elements constitute the practice of continuous improvement. The original Stanford Social Innovation Review article by Kania and Kramer refers to aspects of this component as the need for shared measurement. No matter what you call it, feedback is critical for successful collective impact efforts.

Feedback needs to show up in three ways for a collective impact effort to be successful: 1) the partnership needs to develop a feedback culture that enables open, honest and continuous communication among members; 2) organizations need actual feedback loops to inform them of what does and doesn’t work (so that they can change their behavior accordingly); and 3) the partnership needs a shared cross-sector data infrastructure that allows member organizations to access data as needed in a timely way. Together, these different flavors of feedback enable the partnership to practice evidence-based decision making.

One critical element of building appropriate feedback loops is to disaggregate data by race. Tracking outcomes along racial lines ensures that collective impact efforts uphold and advance equity by revealing the disparate impacts that programs and policies have on communities of color.

The Components of Collective Impact

Living Cities applies the principles of Collective Impact as a tool in our arsenal to achieve dramatically faster results on behalf of low income people.

No matter what language you use to drive your collective impact efforts forward, these core components are the same. Living Cities applies the principles of Collective Impact as a tool in our arsenal to achieve dramatically faster results on behalf of low income people. We fund and support several initiatives that are applying Collective Impact principles so that we can accelerate learning by doing, and support dramatically different results. These portfolios include StriveTogether, The Integration Initiative and the Working Cities Challenge. You can also read more about what we’re learning across these Collective Impact efforts.