Defining Quality Collective Impact

To sustain collective impact, we must bring more rigor to the practice by drawing on lessons from a diverse array of communities to define what truly makes this work unique.


Collective impact is at a strategic inflection point. After almost three years of extraordinary hype, investors are wondering what this concept really means when they receive proposals that simply replace the term “collaboration” with “collective impact.”1 Researchers are perplexed by so-called new ways of doing business that look eerily similar to what they have already studied. And most important, leaders and practitioners in communities are confused about what it really means to put collective impact into action.

As the founding managing director (Jeff Edmondson) and a national funder (Ben Hecht) of StriveTogether, we remain bullish on the concept of collective impact. For us, it is the only path forward to address complex social problems—there is no Plan B. Yet to realize its promise, we need to define in concrete terms what “quality collective impact” really means. For that reason, we have spent the last 18 months aggressively working on a coherent definition to increase the rigor of these efforts, so that this concept does not become watered down. We feel confident that if we agree on core characteristics, we can stop the unfortunate trend of “spray and pray”—haphazardly launching programs and initiatives and hoping that good things will happen. Instead, we can crystallize the meaning of collective impact and solve seemingly intractable problems.

First, some background on the organization. StriveTogether is an outgrowth of The StrivePartnership in Cincinnati, Ohio, which is based at KnowledgeWorks and was featured in the first article on collective impact, published in the Winter 2011 issue of Stanford Social Innovation Review. StriveTogether has pulled together more than 45 of the most committed communities around the country to form the StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network. Its aim is not to start new programs—we have plenty. Instead, the network is focused on articulating how cross-sector partners can best work together to identify and build on what already works—and innovate as necessary—to support the unique needs of every child.

Fortunately, the members of the network have been willing to “fail forward” by sharing not only their successes, but also their struggles, using the lessons they have learned to advance the field. Their experiences during the last three years have contributed to the creation of a vital tool called the StriveTogether Theory of Action (TOA), which provides a guide for communities to build a new civic infrastructure.2 The TOA highlights a community’s natural evolution and provides the quality benchmarks that, taken together, differentiate this work from traditional collaboration. It uses what we call “gateways,” or developmental stages, to chart the path from early on (“exploring”), through intermediate and later stages (“emerging” and “sustaining”), and finally to “systems change,” where communities see improvement in educational outcomes. We define systems change as a community-wide transformation in which various partners a) proactively use data to improve their decision-making and b) constantly weigh the impact of their decisions on both their own institutions and the broader ecosystem that works to improve the lives of children. The ultimate result—which we are witnessing beyond Cincinnati in partnerships like The Roadmap Project in Seattle—are examples of communities where we see sustained improvement in a limited set of measurable outcomes that are critical for kids to succeed and for communities to thrive.

The TOA is not perfect: for example, we realize this work is not linear. Nonetheless, the framework captures the fundamental building blocks necessary for collective impact. As more communities adopt it, it will help us identify the most important aspects of our work.

Four Principles

Four principles underlie our work across the Theory of Action and lead to long-term sustainability.

Build a culture of continuous improvement | Data can be intimidating in any field, but this is especially true in education, where numbers are most often used as a hammer instead of a flashlight.3 To counter this pitfall, community leaders from Albany, N.Y., to Anchorage, Alaska, are creating a culture that embraces data to generate ongoing improvement.4 At the heart of this process lie the “Three I’s”: identify, interpret, and improve. Community leaders work with experts to identify programmatic or service data to collect at the right time from a variety of partners, not simply with individual organizations. They then interpret the data and generate user-friendly reports. Last, they improve their efforts on the ground by training practitioners to adapt their work using the new information. Dallas’s Commit! partnership provides a good example. There, leaders identified schools that had achieved notable improvement in third grade literacy despite long odds. The backbone staff worked with practitioners to identify the most promising schools and interpret data to identify the practices that led to improvements. District leaders are now working to spread those practices across the region, using data as a tool for continuous improvement.

Eliminate disparities | Communities nationwide recognize that aggregated data can mask real disparities. Disaggregating data to understand what services best meet the needs of all students enables communities to make informed decisions. For the All Hands Raised partnership in Portland, Ore., closing the opportunity gap is priority number one. It disaggregates data to make disparities visible to all and partners with leaders of color to lead the critical conversations that are necessary to address historic inequities. The partnership engaged district leaders to change policies and spread effective practices. Over the last three years, the graduation gap for students of color has closed from 14.3 percent to 9.5 percent. In several large high schools the gap is gone.

Leverage existing assets | The all-too-common affliction “project-itis” exerts a strong pull on the social sector, creating a powerful temptation to import a new program instead of understanding and improving the current system. At every level of collective impact work, practitioners have to devote time, talent, and treasure toward the most effective strategies. Making use of existing assets, but applying a new focus to them, is essential to demonstrating that collective impact work truly represents a new way of doing business, not just an excuse to add new overhead or create new programs. In Milwaukee, Wis., and Toledo, Ohio, for example, private businesses lend staff members with relevant expertise to help with data analytics so that communities can identify existing practices having an impact.

Engage local expertise and community voice | Effective data analysis provides a powerful tool for decision-making, but it represents only one vantage point. Local expertise and community voice add a layer of context that allows practitioners to better understand the data. Success comes when we engage partners who represent a broad cross-section of the community not only to shape the overall vision, but also to help practitioners use data to change the ways they serve children. In San Diego, the City Heights Partnership for Children actively engages parents in supporting their peers. Parents have helped design an early literacy toolkit based on local research and used it to help other families prepare children for kindergarten. As more families become involved, they are actively advocating early literacy as a priority for local schools.

The Promise of Quality Collective Impact


For a more complete version of this table visit 

Collective impact efforts can represent a significant leap in the journey to address pervasive social challenges. But to ensure that this concept leads to real improvements in the lives of those we serve, we must bring rigor to the practice by drawing on lessons from a diverse array of communities and defining in concrete terms what makes this work different. The StriveTogether Theory of Action represents a step in that direction, building on the momentum this concept has generated during the past three years.

As US Deputy Secretary of Education Jim Shelton has simply put it: “To sustain this movement around collective impact, we need ‘proof points.’” These come from raising the bar on what we mean by “quality” collective impact and challenging ourselves to meet higher standards. In so doing, not only will we prove the power of this concept, but we can change the lives of children and families in ways we could never have imagined.

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3 Aimee Guidera from Data Quality Campaign


  • Leslie Maloney's avatar

    BY Leslie Maloney

    ON August 21, 2014 12:27 PM

    I read the article and think this is a great step forward in capturing the key elements of quality/rigorous collective impact. And I agree with the four key principles that lead to long-term sustainability:
    • data/continuous improvement
    • closing gaps
    • leveraging existing assets
    • engaging key stakeholders/experts

    I would like to suggest that maybe there is another principle here that could either be part of leveraging existing assets or stand on its own—and that is around the concept of shared accountability.

    I remember when the concept of shared accountability but differentiated responsibility was first introduced at the first convening in Washington D.C. When I look to the Systems Change gateway for the Shared Community Vision pillar, I see a measure of systems change is: “Partners demonstrate shared accountability for improving outcomes. If you are an organization that is actually delivering services within a strategy, then hopefully by default you are demonstrating shared accountability. But if you are a member of the cross-sector leadership table, it is not clear to me what this means or how shared accountability is truly demonstrated.

    Obviously it means that as a partnership, we stand together when all results are published and indicate that we will work together to figure out what’s not working and then find ways (through data and CQI) to implement/scale what is working to improve results versus pointing fingers at would-be responsible culprits.

    But I think there has to be more to this. And I wonder if maybe it should be “Shared Accountability Through Differentiated Responsibility.” As I think about how we are trying to better engage our Executive Committee, I think this is more than about coming to a meeting five times a year to review progress and data and discuss what needs to be done. I think this is about pushing the envelope on “time, talent and treasure.” It’s about asking each committee member (who represents an entity)/each partner/each stakeholder, to step up and “align” to at least one of the outcomes and invest their time, talent and treasure into those strategies that drive those outcomes.

    I am not quite sure what this looks like, but it is about putting aside the representative organization’s agenda and aligning the organization’s time, talent and treasure to these shared outcomes by investing in the proven strategies.

    So what does this look like, say, for an organization to “align” to Kindergarten Readiness?
    • they advocate for the Preschool Promise
    • they fund 4C or Every Child Succeeds (key partners in the United Way’s Success By Six initiative)
    • they support forums for parent education around how to engage with their children during those first five years or critical brain development
    • they support neighborhood book-sharing programs

    What if an organization “aligned” 8th grade math?
    • they provide math tutors to schools
    • they work with curriculum specialists and teachers to develop projects and learning experiences that help engage students in math learning (not unlike the regional STEM collaborative and the projects they are co-developing with schools, funders/businesses and nonprofits)
    • they provide job awareness and exploration opportunities to show the importance of math in future success

    So as we seek to move communities along these gateways, thus demonstrating increased rigor around their collective impact efforts, I think it becomes more and more important to ensure tighter alignment to the outcomes—and the strategies supported to drive those outcomes—by all partners. With respect to the leadership table, it becomes critical for them to “demonstrate their shared accountability” by bringing their resources to bear around these shared outcomes. In other words, it is time to put their skin in the game, make the long-term commitment to this effort, and invest their “time, talent and treasure” in sustaining the community’s collective efforts to support every child, every step of the way, cradle to career.

  • BY Jennifer Perkins

    ON August 27, 2014 07:55 AM

    Leslie, your insights are really thoughtful, and we agree that the mantra of “Shared accountability, differentiated responsibility” is critical to the success of any cradle to career partnership. Understanding how to create a shared sense of ownership is important during all stages of developing a partnership; to ultimately impact systems change, partners need to feel a shared sense of accountability for achieving the partnerships goals, though individually they contribute to this success in very different ways. We’ve heard from Network members, like the Big Goal Collaborative (, that in order to create shared ownership, partners must be able to answer the question “Why are we doing this?” - as individuals, as a partnership and as a community. Understanding the response to this “why” at all levels can ground the work of the partnership and create an inspirational message that ties people and institutions to the goals of the partnership. Ultimately, systems change cannot exist without the buy-in and support of organizations, leadership and the community.

    It’s wonderful to hear how partners in your community have come together with a shared sense of ownership, while recognizing opportunities to leverage unique strengths or resources. We’d love to hear how other collective impact initiatives have addressed the idea of “shared accountability, differentiated responsibility.” What strategies have helped engage partners around a shared vision, while allowing them to see themselves as owners of this work?

  • BY Brint Milward

    ON November 2, 2014 11:02 AM

    This article has the most wonderful statement: “After almost three years of extraordinary hype, investors are wondering what this concept really means when they receive proposals that simply replace the term “collaboration” with “collective impact.”  Researchers are perplexed by so-called news ways of doing business that look eerily similar to what they have already studied.”  All I can say is, “No kidding!”  Seriously there is a lot of very good research that has a practice orientation that is highly useful for evaluating Collective Impact.  See the new IBM Report - Inter-organizational Networks: A Review of the Literature to Inform Practice.  The part of the review that focuses on governance, compares and contrasts the strengths and weaknesses of the different types of network governance.  The Network Administrative Organization (NAO)is very similar to a Backbone Organization and there is 10 years of research assessing its effectiveness.



  • BY Jeff Edmondson

    ON December 17, 2014 03:54 AM

    Thanks for your comment, Bill.  In the end, collective impact is not really anything “new” at all.  In fact, I have a mentor and colleague, Jolie Bain-Pillsbury, who wrote a paper called the Theory of Aligned Contribution a decade ago that captures many of the same concepts.  But the opportunity at hand is that a broad array of people have embraced the concept as a new way of doing business.  So bringing to bear the research you identify and other relevant pieces within the frame this concept has provided gives us an unprecedented opportunity to impact not just outcomes for kids - our singular and most important goal at StriveTogether - but hopefully change the way adults approach tackling complex social problems writ large.  So if you have other nuggets of research and learning, please send them along!

  • Brint Milward's avatar

    BY Brint Milward

    ON December 17, 2014 08:44 PM

    Thanks Jeff.  Take a look at the IBM Business of Government report that is linked to my comment above, it reports a great deal of research on collaborative networks linked to practice.  Also take a look at another one from 2006 that has the governance models of networks in it including the backbone look alike, the network administrative organization.

  • BY Jeff Edmondson

    ON December 22, 2014 11:16 AM

    Brint,  Thanks so much for sending both these resources.  They are right on point and very helpful.  We are pulling from a host of reports to blend insights with the practical experience of communities in the Cradle to Career Network to test new ways of driving real impact - moving student outcomes in concrete ways in our case - rather than just focusing on building a partnership or network alone.

    In case you are interested, here is a link to a site where you can find the Theory of Aligned Contribution:


  • Brint Milward's avatar

    BY Brint Milward

    ON December 22, 2014 01:01 PM

    Jeff, Thanks for the kind comments.  Good luck on the Cradle to Career Network.  Thanks for the link.  I will read the Theory of Aligned Contribution with interest.



  • Daniel Bassill's avatar

    BY Daniel Bassill

    ON May 21, 2015 03:00 PM

    I’ve followed the collective impact articles on SSIR for a couple of years and the growth of a collective impact group in Chicago.  I’d like to see more use of GIS maps to show who is in the network, and where they are located, with layers showing this information by age group served. 

    I’d also like to see social network analysis maps created that show participation in meeting and events, and break this down by talent and sector.  For instance, this concept map shows skills needed to be a successful organization, or collaboration. Mentor Connection Network Analysis - Skills.cmap   A similar maps show various networks that should be included in the process.

    Using SNA data collection, maps might be created for every event, and for annual participation, showing who’s participating and what talent they bring.  I’ve been trying to do this with conferences I’ve hosed in Chicago since 1994. This page shows some participation maps:  It’s clear that I’ve not been able to attract many sectors who need to be involved in helping youth tutor/mentor programs grow in Chicago.

    This article points to recent work. done by students participating in a 2015 IVMOOC hosted by Indiana University. 

    If such maps were created, and made public on the backbone organization’s map It would paint a better picture of how the network is growing and how far it is reaching.  Is anyone doing this type of analysis?

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