Putting Community in Collective Impact

Five characteristics of civic culture that collective impact efforts must address.

I recently led a discussion in Battle Creek, Mich., with community leaders across all sectors; we were there to kick-off a local collective impact effort focused on vulnerable children and families. The leaders repeatedly described the community as "jaded" and "frustrated." The community said that there was too little trust between people to make progress that stuck, that endless turf battles inevitably cripple efforts, and that there weren't enough credible leaders and organizations to move forward. The community, they said, was tired of initiatives starting one day and fading away the next; this undermined people's confidence accomplishing anything significant. They asserted that the prevailing way of doing business was to do things to people rather than with people.

This conversation echoed hundreds of others I have had with community leaders. People everywhere are wrestling with fundamental questions about how to create change, questions that go to the heart of community life—how it functions, how to engage it, how to make progress.

The collective impact approach offers a pathway for organizations to join together and scale change efforts that get results. The spread of collective impact is a good thing. My chief concern here is that we sometimes leave robust notions of community out of collective impact discussions and implementation efforts. At times, the very nature of community seems like an afterthought, even a nuisance. But no matter how many leaders and organizations join an effort or how well thought-out and rigorous their plan, it is simply not possible to impose a strategy on a community. To be successful, they need to work with the community. But how do we ensure that the context of the community itself—its civic culture—is part of these efforts so as to ensure success?

Civic culture is how a community works—how trust forms, why and how people engage with one another, what creates the right enabling environment for change to take root and accelerate. It directly contributes to the degree of readiness and appetite for change among leaders, groups, and everyday people. Civic culture helps explain why some communities move forward and others remain stuck or treading water, and why some communities that start out making progress ultimately slide backward.

Each community has its own civic culture, and to make progress, it’s important that everyone understands and develops it. Here are five characteristics of civic culture that collective impact efforts must address:

1.  Community ownership

An implicit assumption of collective impact is that if the right leaders, professionals, and experts are at the table, and if they examine enough data, they can create a "common agenda" that the community will support. But the success of collective impact depends on genuine ownership by the larger community, and that starts with placing value on both expert knowledge and public knowledge, which can come only from authentically engaging the community.

The starting point is to determine shared aspirations for a community and to know the challenges people face in moving toward those aspirations. Only then can all involved figure out what they need to address and in what ways.

2.  Strategies that fit the community

Another important characteristic of collective impact is that organizationally aligned strategies will produce measurable progress when teams base them on data, evidence-based decision-making, best practices, and other inputs. But it is important to not confuse a commitment to rigorous analysis with developing strategies that actually fit a local context.

Collective impact efforts should actively use public knowledge to drive the definition of a common agenda and to understand what strategies are relevant to the community. Fit also involves knowing that communities go through several stages. It’s important to know what stage a community is in at any given time. There are five stages of community life—which we call Community Rhythms—that help to explain why some communities move faster and others slower when it comes to change. Each stage has its own implications, or do's and don'ts, for creating change. When community actors have public knowledge and know its community rhythm, they can determine and drive strategies that will fit the local context.

3.  A sustainable enabling environment

To forge a sense of possibility and a pathway, it is critical to create the right enabling environment in a community. This means focusing on the underlying conditions in a community that allow change to occur—and for the community itself to change how it works together. (The leaders in Battle Creek were wrestling with this.)

There are nine essential factors, which, together, form what I call “public capital” and create a community's enabling environment. These include different layers of leadership in a community, norms for interaction, the presence of multiple groups that span boundaries and bring people together, conscious community conversation, and networks for learning and innovation. The good news is that communities can proactively create these conditions; however, they must do so with intention. The trick is to focus on a particular "sweet spot": Develop strategies that move the needle on an issue and—simultaneously—build the underlying conditions for change.

4.  A focus on impact and belief

The chief calling card of a collective impact approach is impact. Yet, surprising though it may be, the intense focus on impact alone is not enough to create that desired goal. Another necessary ingredient is belief.

Belief, after all, is that intangible factor that prompts and prods people to step forward and engage; makes people willing to join with others; and connects people’s self-interests with others’ and, at times, transcends them. Belief arises when people feel they are part of something bigger than themselves. How we structure collective impact efforts can either enlarge or diminish people's belief.

5.  A story

Another characteristic of collective impact is ongoing communications. But traditional aspects of communications strategies are not adequate for addressing the challenge that narratives play in a community. This is the story the community tells about itself. And it is this story that helps shape people's mindsets, attitudes, behaviors, and actions. It affects their sense of possibility. My own research and observations reveal that whether a community moves forward or not often depends on its narrative.

Any quest to bring about collective impact must involve giving rise to a new, "can-do" narrative. As with collective impact efforts generally, we cannot impose these narratives on a community. They emerge; they bubble up from within a community as genuine efforts of progress and new ways of working together—true proof points—start to take root and spread. What's more, the narrative must unfold over time, giving people a sense that a new trajectory is at work.

Turning Outward to Find a Way Forward

What I am calling for here is something so basic that it can easily elude us: Collective impact efforts must have the community in their line of sight. To pay attention to a community's civic culture requires that everyone make a conscious decision to turn outward, toward the community, and adopt new practices. To fulfill the promise of collective impact, we must take action with communities, not apart from them.

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  • BY Chris Thompson

    ON April 7, 2014 03:53 PM

    Richard, Thank you very much for this helpful perspective and the valuable links. I agreed that a community’s culture is a determining factor in its ability to frame and implement a collective impact effort. Your 9 essential factors are, in many ways, precursors to the conditions for collective impact.

    Interestingly, the civic culture in a community often isn’t transferable from one civic arena to the next. For example, the culture in one community where I work has enabled an amazing collaboration to make change happen within multiple educational systems. However, that same community struggles with bringing collaboration to local government. The respective cultures among school officials and local government officials within the same community are dramatically different.

    The cultural traits of the community need to be conducive for the tenets of collective impact to resonate. In many communities the first step toward collective impact is catalyzing the cultural changes necessary to enable it to occur. I imagine you could provide us with great insight on how to do that, as well.

  • If only someone could think of a name for that type of process of producing solutions which stresses the co-operative element. Maybe ‘co’ something or other.

    Hmmm, let me think. Oh, I know…‘co-production’!

    But wait, hasn’t that been discovered already? Hasn’t that been around since at least the 70s, before anyone had even heard of Elinor Ostrom?

    But no, it can’t be the same thing. For this is the Stanford Social INNOVATION Review, so it needs to be new! Something different! Something bold and exciting and radical in order to gain legitimacy and interest. Even better if we can go to SCALE! Even even better if we can lever SOCIAL INVESTMENT for our radical new idea!


    Btw, Levi-Strauss’s ideas on bricolage will likely help you with your cultural context quandary Chris and the reason why achieving real and lasting impact at the local level is so messy and context specific and worthwhile and why achieving SCALE (in capital letters) is, in very many circumstances, the entirely wrong goal.  But why you wanting to change local cultures? Is it not better to go with the grain? Just asking…

    Bricolage is one of the theoretical underpinnings of the groundbreaking WILCO project in Europe that my friend and colleague Prof Taco Brandsen led on.


  • BY Chris Thompson

    ON April 7, 2014 05:00 PM

    Mike, I think many of the ideas of collective impact etc. have been around for as long as man as has been forming communities. I value the innovative way the concepts are presented. And as to why I want to change local cultures, I guess I’d like to encourage local cultures to embrace bricolage…and sometimes that does require change.

  • BY Daniel F. Bassill

    ON April 9, 2014 07:21 AM

    If someone in a community creates a map and database showing all of the people already working to solve a problem, who may have been working on that problem for many years, and who probably struggle to find consistent support from donors who get tired of funding on-going projects and want to fund “new” things, the first step in collective impact might be an effort to help those already in places get the reinforcements they need to keep doing their work, and to find ways to keep doing it better.

    If this support process builds then a process of identifying voids might lead to new efforts in parts of the city where services are needed, but not yet available. 

    If the process of invitation and trust building, resulting from helping those already in place, grows, perhaps this can then lead to new ideas of what’s working and what might work better with the application of new resources from a collective impact.

  • BY Dan Duncan

    ON April 11, 2014 06:42 AM

    Rich, thank you for bringing community into the collective impact discussion.  It is critical for collective impact success that we engage the community, especially the targets of our intervention, the very people we are trying to help, as co-producers of their own and their community’s well-being.  We cannot do it without them.  We must move the question from “What do you need?” to What can you contribute?.  And then the collective impact role changes from providing services to fill up someones emptiness to removing barriers so that people can share their gifts and become part of the solution.  We cannot assume that just getting agencies and institutions to work better together will achieve the results a community wants.  Collective Impact must include the community.

  • Erik Jensen's avatar

    BY Erik Jensen

    ON April 6, 2016 10:21 AM

    Rich -

    Having come across this article recently, I am beginning to believe that, perhaps the most salient element is what you have described as “belief”.  Where are communities as it pertains to “belief”?  Has the fear of the “other”, whoever that might be, and the notion that we can easily sort our neighbors into “categories” undermined this? 

    “Belief” seems to be missing, and I am not sure what has happened to it.

    Thanks and wishing you well.

    Erik Jensen

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