Rereading “Collective Impact”: Three Lessons

Fresh insights gleaned from the article that started it all.

One of the many lessons I've learned since the first “Collective Impact” article by John Kania and Mark Kramer disrupted my life three years ago is that all collaborations go through cycles. And as Liz Weaver, vice president of the Tamarack Institute, teaches, it takes about three to five years to go through the full collaboration cycle. To sustain the collaboration beyond the first journey through the cycle requires that participants constantly reassess the rationale and value proposition of the collaboration—to learn and affirm why they are committed to working with others.

So three years into my personal collective impact journey—during which I’ve facilitated collaborations, attended and presented at workshops, advocated as both a funder and a practitioner, read tomes on complexity and shaping a project with FSG—I wasn’t surprised when I reached the point where I needed to go back to the beginning to keep moving forward.

Although I had returned to the original article (and all subsequent articles on the topic) many times for insight, I didn’t reread the original in its entirety until recently. Rereading it provided me with a few insights that I had lost over the years, including:

1. This is really long-term work. “Participants need several years of regular meetings to build up enough experience with each other to recognize and appreciate the common motivation behind their different efforts,” write Kania and Kramer.

We live in an age where instant gratification isn’t nearly fast enough. Who is willing to work “several years” to develop the trusted relationships and capacity required to achieve collective impact? How do we create a several-year view when so many funders consider three years long-term?

The disparity between time required and patience available is one reason why collaboration for collective impact is so elusive.

2. Collaboration requires capacity.  The authors write: “The expectation that collaboration can occur without a supporting infrastructure is one of the most frequent reasons why it fails. The backbone organization requires a dedicated staff separate from the participating organizations … Collective impact also requires a highly structured process that leads to effective decision making.”

Very few people like process. We enjoy doing. Creating the capacity to facilitate a process that empowers cross-sector collaboration is painful and tedious. Getting something done, however—now that’s exciting and fun. Selling funders, organizations, and leaders on the value of creating capacity for process is so tough that we are often inclined to try to figure out how to collaborate without it. That’s a mistake.

3. Collective impact requires funders to shift their perspective. “It is no longer enough to fund an innovative solution created by a single nonprofit or to build that organization’s capacity. Instead, funders must help create and sustain the collective processes, measurement reporting systems, and community leadership that enable cross-sector coalitions to arise and thrive,” say Kania and Kramer.

Shifting to a collective impact framework requires everyone within the complex system to change. Those with the least incentive to change are the funders—private, public, and philanthropic. One funder friend of mine who is a huge champion of collective impact shared with me how she dismissed a recent grant application, because it didn’t fit the "normal" framework. Two of her colleagues pointed out to her that the grantee was pursuing a fresh, collective approach. Although embarrassed by her initial response, she shares this story to illustrate how hard it is for funders to make the switch to collective impact stick.

Ken Thompson (no relation) of the Gates Foundation referenced this point in a recent post, noting that funders "don't tend to change until we have to." But what makes a funder “have to” change? In systems—whether natural or organizational—competition drives change. Broadly speaking, funders don't operate in a competitive space. Funders change when they want to change. Persuading them to change was one of the objectives of the original article, and it is at the core of the emerging Collective Impact Forum, formed by FSG and the Aspen Institute. It also is one of the most challenging hurdles to achieving collective impact.

Collective impact remains more of an aspiration than an accomplishment for most of us. As I aspire to sustain more positive change in 2014, I found that the simple act of rereading the original article was both inspiring and informative. I encourage others to do the same and I intend to reread it regularly to remind myself that this is indeed long-term, rigorous work requiring that all of us behave very differently.

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  • Kim Fortunato's avatar

    BY Kim Fortunato

    ON February 3, 2014 05:45 PM

    Great comments and so true. Collective Impact is a commitment to many things including patience for long term investment to create social change.WeI started rolling out our collective impact model in Camden exactly 3 years ago.  Thank you John Kania for the SSIR Article 2011 and the 2 that followed. You have provided the framework for the CampbellHealthy Communities Program.

  • BY Beth Greeley

    ON February 4, 2014 10:55 AM

    Helpful review, Chris, especially your underscore of how important it is for funders to hold to the long-term and to invest in building capacity.  We, too, know a funder who declined to even consider supporting a backbone organization in her community, saying, “We only fund things that serve people directly.”  Meanwhile the initiative in question was engaging dozens of organizations and civic leaders in ways that would have profoundly leveraged the foundation’s investment.  You’re right to inspire us all to re-commit to the principles of collective impact for the new year.

  • BY Joe Cicero

    ON February 4, 2014 12:35 PM

    Chris, Very well said…..we need to see that slow and steady brings the best results.  by fostering the right mind-set and developing the best plan and the best people to lead us through….we have a good chance of making the right choices for our collective future.

  • BY Chris Thompson

    ON February 4, 2014 01:25 PM

    Thank you all for the kind words. It’s good to know that others have similar experiences. Joe, I’m not sure I’d embrace “slow and steady.” I’m way too impatient for that, but I do believe “persistence” is critical.

    Beth, I think collaborations need to take great care when choosing which funders to ask for capacity support. As Paul Born at Tamarack Institute notes, backbones shouldn’t accept support from a funder that isn’t willing to be heavily engaged in the design/work of the collaboration. As he says, “Funders need a job” beyond check writing.

    Your collaboration is probably better off not getting a check from the type of funder you described. Persuading funders to shift from that perspective to a collective impact framework takes more than a single grant proposal.

    I’d welcome your input on an issue I hear from many funders: How do they distinguish between a credible backbone candidate and what you might call a “wannabe backbone?”

  • BY Cheryl Gooding

    ON February 5, 2014 10:23 AM

    I really appreciate the thoughtful and self-reflective tone of your piece Chris.  And I would underscore the second point: collaboration requires capacity.

    I think we all - nonprofit leaders; philanthropists; consultants; co=collaborators - underestimate the actual vs the required capacity on the ground to think through and to execute high impact strategies.  Yes, it takes time.  But it also requires that we be willing and capable of understanding when we don’t have the needed capacities and how to make the right investments in building those capacities.  I think this requires us to be process experts with a high capacity for learning.

  • BY Tracy Moavero

    ON February 5, 2014 01:42 PM

    Really interesting piece, Chris. I, too, wonder about getting funders to support this kind of work with so much emphasis on shorter term projects and relatively quick results. I am heartened by the increasing support for collaboration, but we’ve got a ways to go. Sounds like building collaboration over years also requires working with funders over a long period as well.

    As for the credible backbone, I’d think that longevity as well as a history of being effectively engaged with coalition partners will say a lot. Of course, a big challenge is getting deep support within organizations so that collaboration “sticks” and doesn’t become another silo.

    I clicked through on some of your links. Lots to read and consider.

  • BY Daniel F. Bassill

    ON February 6, 2014 10:11 AM

    Good to encourage thinking about these challenges.

    I’ve been following the SSIR articles for a couple of years myself and can offer some perspective from my own efforts to bring together a network of youth serving organizations in Chicago over the past 20 years.  I’ve not seen many articles written about

    a) the constant turnover of people in organizations who need to be partners in a collective effort, making relationship building and shared knowledge difficult to achive

    b) few articles about “the need for everyone, not just the backbone” to get paid.  The competitive grant and fund raising process does not build a consistent distribution of operating funds to all of the organizations who might be involved in a collective effort.  In a big city like Chicago this represents hundreds of potential partners

    As the network of organizations is being created, and a knowledge base is put on line, there are tremendous opportunities for leaders from many sectors to take actions and lead campaigns that draw volunteers, talent and dollars through the entire sector on a more consistent basis. I’d like to see some articles showing where this may be happening.

  • BY Beth Greeley

    ON February 6, 2014 01:43 PM

    How to spot a real backbone?
    The anatomical metaphor for backbone organizations is an apt one.  The structure that will carry a collective impact effort has to be strong, yet flexible and able to grow over time.

    It’s rare that a backbone organization is one that was obvious from the get-go.  Our experience is that the backbone organization reveals itself during the initial planning process for a collective impact initiative.  Related to your citation from Paul Born, the more a funder is truly involved in that early process, the easier it is to recognize a strong backbone candidate.

    Certain characteristics are good indicators.  Is the organization “cause oriented”, meaning is it dedicated to achieving a specific, lasting benefit for a defined population of people?  Can it demonstrate a commitment to working in partnership and the determination to help all involved gain benefit from their participation?  Is it good at goal-focused planning?  Does the organization have the capacity to mobilize resources in support of a plan?  And, one we always look for, are the organization’s leaders deeply committed to the cause?

  • BY Rhonda Bannard

    ON February 6, 2014 08:45 PM

    What stuck our for me was the point about foundations not having a reason to change.  They aren’t competitive. Great point.  Juxtapose that with a recent conversation I had with two foundations sitting in the same room.  One of the first things they brought up was “policy” as it related to my client’s topic.  Later it dawned on me how amazing that was.  Finally they’re thinking about systemic change versus the typical model of continually throwing money at an issue but not addressing it in a broader way.  That’s not direct service; instead it’s transformative change.  That’s where we should be pushing foundations and other funders to go.  The old way simply isn’t working.

  • BY Chris Thompson

    ON February 7, 2014 09:21 AM

    This is an inspiring conversation and I sure hope we can keep it going. Daniel, I encourage you to look at the work of the Tamarack Institute to see examples of how sufficient trust can be built among a collaboration to survive the turnover you reference. It is a real challenge. I think the more collaborators understand the “collaboration cycle” the better chance they have to survive that kind of turnover.

    A foundation head just yesterday echoed your concern that funders aren’t doing enough to avoid creating competitive funding environments among collaborators. This is one of the “old ways” that Rhonda refers to that just aren’t working. Moving to a collective impact framework is a huge shift for funders and it won’t be done perfectly and it will cause pain for nonprofits.

    Beth, I really appreciate your indicators of a promising backbone. I will be sharing them with the funders I work with who are sorting through this tough issue. And I couldn’t agree more that a backbone isn’t obvious. Ideally, it would emerge over time. But we are in a hurry so we often anoint an organization that is unequipped to perform the key functions or is more “organization oriented” than they are “cause oriented.”

    I hope you all will keep this chat going, as well as add to the conversation on Twitter: #collectiveimpact. It’s great to know there are others thinking/wondering about how to make change.

  • BY Curtis Ogden

    ON February 12, 2014 11:39 AM

    Thanks for this, Chris.  I enjoyed reading your piece, as I’ve enjoyed our recent email and phone conversations.  And as you know, I agree with your assessment of the need to continue to build capacity for collaboration and to win more hearts and minds. 

    A few years into the conversation about “collective impact,’ there are a couple of things that I feel continue to be sorely missing: an emphasis on taking a “network approach” and to making a fundamental commitment to equity, in both process and outcome.  As you know, these are core “lenses” at the Interaction Institute for Social Change. 

    In our experience, part of what can be hard about complex, cross-sectoral, multi-stakeholder change work is what convenors of said initiatives do to exacerbate the difficulty by not explicitly putting issues of power, equity and inclusion on the table from the get (thereby perpetuating inequities and convincing many that this is just another one of those “created for” as opposed to “created with” initiatives).  Addressing and working with power is fundamental to making system change. 

    Another issue is when collaboration is approached in a rather one-dimensional and “old school” way, which can contribute to process fatigue and wariness (everyone sitting in a room, talking through every little point, only making it OK to move if everyone feels OK to move on everything .  We think there is great and demonstrated promise in working with existing networks in network ways, weaving new connections through relationship building and resource sharing, and using new (on-line) network tools to advance some aspects of the work, even as we engage in ongoing conversations and agreement-building on other aspects.  This creates space for folks to find places where they do agree and move together on that, without having to find agreement on everything before moving on anything. So much is being written now about seeing networks as the new organizations (and the way work really gets done), perhaps time to do the same with collective impact.  More about this here:

    And more about both points here:

    Looking forward to continuing the conversation.  Thanks, Chris!


  • BY Chris Thompson

    ON February 12, 2014 04:43 PM

    Thanks Curtis for the additional insight. I think there’s a lot of value in applying network thinking/approaches to this work. Ed Morrison, June Holley, Jack Ricchiuto and other network thinkers have long advocated for the type of framework called for in Collective Impact.

    Relationships in complex systems take the form of networks not hierarchies. And that is why the network tools and approaches you describe are invaluable.

    Yet hierarchical organizations (and leadership styles) aren’t going away. While it’s true that we increasingly live in a networked world. We still live in a hierarchical world, as well. Getting those two worlds to mesh is one of the more complex parts collaboration.

  • BY CJ Calderon

    ON February 20, 2014 01:17 PM

    Thanks Chris!  Your insight is invaluable.  2 years into a collective impact model initiative,  - I am in need of some resources on measuring impact.  Any suggestions you have would be welcome!

  • Andrew M's avatar

    BY Andrew M

    ON May 2, 2014 02:44 PM

    This is valuable. The research suggests that system=level change takes about 7 years. Check out the 2007 special issue on system-level change in the American Journal of Community Psychology.

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