Collective impact—the idea that organizations from different sectors of society need to join together to tackle pressing social problems—captured people’s imagination as soon as the concept first appeared in print in the winter 2011 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review. One and one-half years later, the idea continues to gather momentum.

Earlier this week I attended several events—the Committee Encouraging Corporate Philanthropy (CECP) 2012 Corporate Philanthropy Summit in New York City, the White House Council for Community Solutions meeting in Washington, D.C., and a roundtable on collective impact hosted by SSIR also in Washington, D.C.—where collective impact was front and center in the discussions.

In New York City more than 200 executives in charge of corporate philanthropy at many of the word’s largest corporations (including General Electric, Credit Suisse, McDonald’s, Total S.A., and IBM) gathered for two days of discussions. One of the sessions, “Making Multi-Sector Collaborations Work: Lessons from the White House Council for Community Solutions,” focused on the role that business can play in fostering collective impact solutions.

The panel was moderated by Willa Seldon, partner at Bridgespan Group, and featured John F. Clayton, workforce development manager at Independence Blue Cross; Stephanie Gambone, vice president external relations at Philadelphia Youth Network; Deborah O’Brien, senior vice president and market manager for corporate social responsibility at Bank of America; and Paul Schmitz, CEO of Public Allies.

Seldon and her panelists used the Philadelphia Youth Network as a case study to better understand how collective impact works. Bank of America and Independence Blue Cross both work closely with the network to tackle the problems Philadelphia’s underprivileged youth face. About 10 percent of the business executives attending the session indicated that their companies were also participating in collective impact work in their local communities. Limited Brands, for example, is involved with Learn4Life in Columbus, Ohio. Learn4Life was initiated by Nationwide Insurance to improve the educational opportunities for young people in the Columbus area.

One of the difficulties of making collective impact work is that business objectives often focus on short term results, while collective impact requires a long-term commitment to the effort. “That can prove to be a challenge for business,” says Seldon. It can also be difficult for companies to work collaboratively. “We aren’t very good at that,” admitted the president of one of the corporate foundations. “It’s not in our DNA.”

The CECP panelists also discussed the lessons learned by the White House Council for Community Solutions, an advisory group created about two years ago by President Obama to explore ways that communities can come together to solve pressing social problems. The collective impact approach provided a guide for much of the council’s work. The final meeting of the council took place at the White House on Monday, when it released its final report.

SSIR took advantage of the gathering by hosting a roundtable discussion on collective impact, made up of members of the council and others. The roundtable was moderated by Michele Jolin, managing partner at America Achieves and a member of the White House council, and myself. There were ten participants: John Bridgeland, president and CEO of Civic Enterprises; Ben Hecht, president and CEO of Living Cities; Lucretia Murphy, co-chair of Raise DC; Norman Rice, president and CEO of the Seattle Foundation; Paul Schmitz, president and CEO of Public Allies; Jim Shelton, assistant deputy secretary in the US Department of Education; Stacey Stewart, executive vice president of United Way Worldwide; Patty Stonesifer, chair of the White House Council for Community Solutions; Mary Lou Young, president and CEO of Greater Milwaukee United Way; and Nancy Zimpher, chancellor of the State University of New York.

The roundtable discussion raised a number of interesting and new ideas about collective impact, which you can read about in the fall 2012 issue of SSIR. The issue will appear in mid-August.

Read more stories by Eric Nee.

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