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Collective Impact

The Real Work of Collective Impact

Collective impact is an increasingly popular concept. It is inherently appealing that otherwise intractable problems can be resolved if everyone joins together to solve them. The simplicity of many hands making light work stops cold in the face of political and cultural realities.

Three fundamental components of collective impact efforts, especially as promoted by StriveTogether, are civic infrastructure, continuous improvement, where continuous improvement is fueled by access to actionable data, and accountability.

The fatal flaw in the work is a lack of focus on human beings.

Although more conversations about capacity-building are taking place, collective impact efforts are at-risk of following the path of the education reformers that went before us if we don’t recognize two things:

The people who have been leading thus far are not likely to be the people who will embrace and lead change. At some point, we have to accept tacit approval from them and stop wasting our time with them.

The people who actually do the work of improving the lives of children and families are the people who deserve our attention. They need to embrace true collaboration. They need to bring their real knowledge and skills to the table. And we need to build their capacity to serve children and families better.

More importantly, the people who actually do the work, are far more likely to get it and want to do their work better.

Entrenched Leadership May Need to be Left Alone

The people who are benefiting from the status quo are not the people on which to focus. Certainly, if it is possible to present compelling evidence to people in power and secure their support, that should be done. But when it becomes clear that entrenched interests are not likely to offer support, go with the tacit approval you can get and move on.

Asserting that having “leadership” take the lead on improving outcomes for children and families is that “leaders” are actually leading anyone. In systems that have been producing the same outcomes for decades, leaders are not leading, they are sitting still. Or worse, they are actively working to perpetuate the system that has served them so well thus far.

It does not take long to identify a culture of complicity and silence. In my experience, the moment I voice an obvious truth about the stagnation in a system and types of attitudes and biases that support that stagnation, I can tell whether the audience is made up of people who want to see things change and those who are invested in things staying the same. It is at that point, when it becomes clear with whom to continue the conversation.

Efforts to get “leaders” to lead need to have an expiration date. Getting groups to sign proclamations, memoranda of understanding, or letters of commitment is virtually meaningless. If it is clear that “leaders” are committed to the same policies and practices that have created the situation at-hand, stop spending precious energy trying to get them to do otherwise.

Support the People Who Want to Serve Better

Collective impact requires cross-sector partners. Discussions about this often refer to institutional and agency heads, but those of us facilitating the work recognize that the cross-sector partnership is real when direct-service providers from various sectors know and work well with each other on behalf of their clients. It is real when people’s lives are changed for the better because the direct service people have the confidence of intermediaries and funders and can demonstrate how their collaborating is improving lives.

These are the people who need our support and attention. This is where the energy must live. These are the people around which we need to build our efforts related to data use and continuous improvement. This is where the real work of collective impact happens.

True enough if “leaders” are actively engaged against collaborative efforts then they will likely fail. This is why it is better to simply leave them be than confront them with their failings. Politically speaking, those proclamations, memoranda of understanding, and letters of commitment are virtually meaningless, but it is possible to take what little meaning they have as approval of the work.

It is organizational level leadership, the directors and executive directors who give time and space to the frontline workers who need some attention. Even then, they only need enough to make the space to prove that something good can happen—that change is possible.


The almost religious focus on getting structures and processes in place must be matched with a fervor for the relational work necessary to change human behavior.

The recent turn toward adaptive leadership in the collective impact world has promise inasmuch as it is not overshadowed by the results accountability work that doesn’t address the need for adaptive change. Showing people data and getting them to agree on a direction does not get people to change their behavior and actually do anything differently.

From the beginning of my affiliation with the Shelby County, TN collective impact effort I noted how the work of facilitators seems to be valued less across the country than the work of data collection, sharing, and security. It has always fascinated me how highly technical work, work that can easily be taught, is often so much more valuable than relational work, work that is far more difficult to teach and to do.

The community of collective impact professionals and leaders need to recognize that unless individual human beings across the country change their day-to-day behavior, no outcomes will improve.

Nothing will change.

There will be new civic infrastructure. There will be fancy new data systems and community dashboards. But the outcomes that we all claim to be focused on will be just as dismal as they are now.

Originally published on a personal blog in 2016.