Collective Impact: What is it, and why is it of interest to NNSI researchers?

by Katherine Cooper

Here at NNSI, we hear a lot about collective impact – what is it? What role should nonprofits play in collective impact? Our researchers have been interested in this phenomenon for some time; this week, we provide an overview of what we know about collective impact – and our efforts to explore collective impact from a research standpoint.

What is collective impact?

The concept of collective impact was introduced in a 2011 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review by John Kania and Mark Kramer of FSG, a consulting firm geared towards the social change. The authors differentiate collective impact from other forms of collaboration by stressing five conditions of collective impact: a common agenda, a shared measurement for the collection and evaluation of data, mutually reinforcing activities (as opposed to program creation or replication), continuous communication across partners as developed through meetings, shared language and trust, and a backbone organization to coordinate partners and efforts.

Why am I hearing so much about collective impact lately?

If you work in the nonprofit sector, chances are you’ve heard about collective impact. Here are some possible reasons why:

  1. Collective impact represents a way for nonprofit organizations to expand their work. In their original article, Kania and Kramer specifically called out nonprofit organizations for focusing too much on “isolated impacts” that refer to the efforts of any single organization. In these cases, individual organizations that are dependent on their own growth to expand programs or pursue a solution on their own rather than working to leverage cross-organizational – or cross-sector – platforms for system change.
  2. Collective impact has become a national trend. A number of entities have created models or developed resources for collective impact. These include StriveTogether, the Forum for Youth Investment, United Way Worldwide, America’s Promise Alliance, the Aspen Institute, the Collective Impact Forum, and Policy Link, just to name a few.
  3. Funders have shown an interest in collective impact. Foundations have long encouraged nonprofits to partner with others doing similar work and to evaluate the results of their efforts. Collective impact, with its emphasis on partnership and data-driven decision-making, appeals to funders.

Why is NNSI interested in collective impact?

At NNSI, we’re interested in answering the question: How can nonprofit networks be rewired for maximum impact? Essentially, we’re interested in how nonprofit organizations work with other agencies and communities to scale up their efforts. As we started hearing more and more interest from nonprofits in our community who were actively engaged in collective impact or exploring the possibility of getting involved in these types of initiatives, we wanted to learn more. Specifically, we’re interested in the following questions:

  • How is collective impact different from other types of nonprofit collaboration that we have previously studied?
  • Which contexts are best suited to collective impact initiatives?
  • Who needs to be involved in collective impact?
  • How do issues of power and equity factor into collective impact?

How does collective impact fit into NNSI’s research agenda?

Our NNSI portfolio includes several collective impact research projects, including:

  • A pilot study that explored how different organizational stakeholder types (nonprofit leaders, business leaders, educators, etc.) participate in collective impact.
  • A two-year case study of an emerging collective impact initiative, consisting of survey research, participant observation, meeting records, and organizational archives.
  • A three-year study funded by the Army Research Office that explores 15 paired communities to determine how collective impact initiatives differ from other community efforts to improve educational outcomes.

In addition, we’ve participated in additional education and outreach activities pertaining to collective impact. These include:

  • The Collective Impact Summit. In November 2015, we invited academic researchers and collective impact thought leaders to a day-long convening at Northwestern University. Together, we reviewed what we know from previous research in collaboration, coalition building, community development, and education reform to create a comprehensive review of what we know – and what we don’t know – about collective impact.
  • We’ve also worked with the Center for Nonprofit Management at the Kellogg School of Management (Northwestern University) to create an executive education curriculum for nonprofit leaders. This course draws on our research to provide an overview of collective impact as well as practical suggestions for nonprofit leaders currently participating in or exploring involvement in collective impact projects.

You can also see collective impact publications from NNSI here:

Stay tuned! In the coming months, we’ll post other updates about our work on collective impact on the Social Impact Blog. If you are currently involved in a collective impact initiative and would be interested in participating in a study, contact nnsi@northwestern.edu.

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