top of page

The Beginner’s Guide to Collective Impact

Over the past three years, there has been a dramatic increase in need for collaboration in our communities in order to give everyone an equal opportunity to thrive. The long-term social change the for-impact sector is working towards requires the full participation of individuals committed to contributing their time, talent, and treasures to causes focused on changing the world. It requires everyone to collaborate and have a common mission.

There has been a lot of buzz around collective impact initiatives lately. But what is collective impact? And how is it different from other collaborative approaches to driving long-term social change? The goal of this blog is to provide an overview of collective impact, discuss the three phases for launching a collective impact initiative in your community, and give you a readiness checklist for getting started.

What is Collective Impact?

The Stanford Social Innovation Review introduced the idea of collective impact in 2011, and it has steadily grown in popularity since. Collective impact is a structured approach to collaboration across government, business, philanthropy, nonprofits, and citizens in order to address complex social problems. Successful collective impact initiatives have the following five conditions.

Common Agenda: Participating organizations share a common vision and develop a collective understanding of how to reach it.

Shared Measurement Systems: Organizations are held accountable through a shared measurement system and agreed upon definitions of success.

Mutually Reinforcing Activities: Activities are coordinated through an agreed-upon plan of action.

Continuous Communication: Executive leaders commit to a long-term commitment to build trust and work through problems by meeting at least monthly.

Backbone Support Organizations: A separate organization (outside the participating organizations) that has designated staff tasked with the coordination, project management, data management, and facilitation of the collective impact initiative is brought into the project.

The Santa Barbara Alliance for Community Transformation

One such backbone organization is The Santa Barbara Alliance for Community Transformation, or SB ACT. SB ACT started with two pastors who met in a park each week to provide hot meals for the local homeless. Over five years of service, they came to realize that so much more could be done to increase overall stability for these individuals. Food and shelter are only part of the complex needs of the homeless population.

Based on the collective impact model, SB ACT serves as the backbone organization, integrating nonprofits, government agencies, local businesses, private donors, and foundations to address and advance issues around homelessness. By coordinating with these organizations, SB ACT has helped individuals experiencing homelessness gain access to case management, healthcare, hygiene, mental health resources, increased affordable housing, and so much more.

Getting Started

The Stanford Social Innovation Review outlined three phases for getting a collective impact approach up and running.

Phase I: Initiate Action

Phase I requires understanding the existing landscape. What social issues do you aim to address? What is work already taking place in your community and by whom? Is there an existing infrastructure for collaboration or do you need to start from scratch?

Phase II: Organize for Impact

Phase II starts with establishing common goals, shared measures, and agreed upon definitions of success. In this phase, you must also determine who will play the role of your backbone organization.

Phase III: Sustain Action and Impact

Sustaining impact requires coordinating priorities and systematically collecting data. Sustainable processes enable active learning and course correcting as you work towards a common goal. The ability to collect, measure, and share common impact data is the core of a joint collective impact approach.

The Wichita Collective Impact Initiative

The United Way of the Plains developed the Wichita Collective Impact Initiative to address the educational needs of students in the most vulnerable areas in the Wichita Public Schools. Their mission states: “Through volunteerism, shared expertise and financial grants, we will achieve collective impact that strengthens equity through educational success and workforce readiness.”

The initiative brings together the community, nonprofits, businesses and government entities to increase access to early childhood education, improve reading and math proficiency, and increase graduation rates. They also work to increase enrollment in ready-to-work programs and improve post-secondary enrollment.

Collective Impact Readiness Checklist

The allure of collective impact is that you can dramatically enhance desired outcomes through collaboration that is centered on a single community-level need. But before you consider launching or taking part in a collective impact initiative, it is important to conduct a readiness assessment to help you understand the risks, requirements, and rewards for your organization.

1. Does your organization want to create significant, community-wide change?

The social-good sector has always collaborated to address multidimensional challenges that nonprofits cannot address on their own. The collective impact approach formalizes these relationships and provides a framework for addressing these challenges through large-scale, data-driven collaboration.

2. Do you believe that lasting positive impact can only be accomplished by pooling a variety of expertise from different sectors and industries?

Lasting change requires simultaneously addressing many layers and levels of challenges in your community. Creating a network of key players from different areas of expertise and influence can help you develop and maintain a series of solutions that work.

3. Have you gained the support of influential community leaders to take on this initiative and assume leadership roles?

Frontline social sector teams, elected officials, community leaders, and others are all essential to creating a collective impact. Community members are also needed to ensure cultural relevancy and help drive awareness and early adoption of solutions.

4. Is your organization committed to data transparency in order to increase impact for all participating organizations and stakeholders?

Taking a data-driven approach that requires transparency between participating organizations is the ultimate accountability tool. This approach forces you to address shortcomings directly and early on in the initiative. While becoming data-driven may seem daunting, it will actually help improve your organization’s performance, which will provide value in both your traditional services and any collective impact initiative.

Centralized Technology Infrastructure

Collective impact collaboratives utilize a centralized infrastructure as the backbone of the initiative. Part of this infrastructure is a centralized technology platform that allows stakeholders to collect and store information for the use of all participating organizations. Individual organizations can also use this shared information to understand their own contribution to the collective impact initiative. Shared technology can also be used to report progress to community stakeholders using agreed-upon metrics.

As more and more communities adopt collective impact models to drive social change, we can all learn from their progress and their increased impact on those they serve. The right technology makes collective impact initiatives possible by simplifying and streamlining data collection and analysis for the varied organizations providing services in the collaborative.

SureImpact shares your passion for driving long-term social change. Our purpose-built platform is specifically designed to provide a coordinated data collection and shared measurement infrastructure for social-good networks to evaluate the effectiveness of their collective impact initiatives.

Watch our Quick Product Tour to learn how SureImpact can support your collective impact initiative.


bottom of page