From Syracuse to Salt Lake City to Seattle, cities around the nation are harnessing the forces of local government, nonprofits, business, education, philanthropy, and other institutions to tackle complex community problems such as teen unemployment, high dropout rates, even childhood obesity. While broad public-private partnerships are not new, these recent ventures are riding a particularly strong wave of enthusiasm. Some have adopted the label “collective impact,” a term coined in the influential 2011 Stanford Social Innovation Review article by John Kania and Mark Kramer.

Funders and researchers share an intense interest in these efforts, and are eager to find out more about their promise and pitfalls. We at The Wallace Foundation and Columbia University’s Teachers College recently joined together to launch a study investigating collective impact. Using a $799,000 Wallace grant, Teachers College researchers will try to capture lessons about the approach as it unfolds in three mid-size American cities. The study will build on research and field insights to date, and culminate in two reports that we hope will inform policy and practice. We expect to publish one in 2015 and a second in 2017.

For us at Teachers College, the project offers a chance to advance long-standing work in three areas: exploring whether and how providing comprehensive social, health, and academic services can improve education for young people, especially those who are disadvantaged; examining how organizations can work alone and together to move an idea from inception to development to institutionalization and legitimacy; and understanding the political twists and turns as a coalition forms and its members try to work across ideological, racial, and class lines to accomplish something together.

For us at The Wallace Foundation, a national philanthropy that works to improve the lives of disadvantaged children, the project is a way to learn more about an approach that we think has both promise and many unanswered questions. We are interested in collective impact in part because of our work in afterschool, where we have seen cities build effective cross-sector “systems” to raise the quality and availability of afterschool programs citywide. In addition, we are currently supporting a collective impact effort in Buffalo, New York—one of the cities Teachers College will study. There, the nonprofit Say Yes to Education is working with a range of community institutions to bolster education and career prospects for local young people. At the same time, we are acutely aware that knowledge of collective impact—what it entails, what obstacles it faces, and how to overcome them—is limited. Without better understanding, the communities doing this work—to say nothing of the funders that back it—could be setting themselves up for disappointment and squandered dollars.

Shedding more light on multi-sector ventures is especially important given their stop-and-go history. Periodically an approach emerges, enjoys attention and popularity, and then withers, only to reappear a decade or so later under a different guise. In the 1990s, it was “schools as hubs of services,” now it’s “collective impact.” And while optimistic accounts of collective impact reforms are plentiful, insightful details about how organizations carry out the ventures, how they take root, and what impact they have remain rare.

Through a literature review, a national scan of projects, and case studies of the three cities (Buffalo and two others that we will select by the end of year), we hope to understand more about past efforts, document the scope of current initiatives, and look for answers to questions such as:

  • How do collective impact projects meet the challenges of getting started, and then move to meet the challenges of staying alive and becoming “business as usual”?
  • What implementation approaches seem to make best use of individuals’ motivations and talents?
  • How do organizations with sharply different cultures and circumstances work together and resolve conflicts?

In addition to looking closely at the history of multi-sector efforts, both nationally and locally, we’ll explore how schools and others contribute to the contemporary efforts and whether and how the shape of the arrangements has changed. We’ll investigate how incentives, resources, and the individual partners’ capabilities affect the initiatives. We’ll also examine how the efforts play out in communities with different priorities, histories, politics, and culture.

Collective impact efforts are taking on some of the nation’s most vexing problems, lending special urgency to this work. Good intentions run high among local players and the many others involved, such as state and federal government, national foundations, and charter school networks. How can all these sectors and personalities work in concert to shape a brighter future for the nation’s most vulnerable young people? Our hope is that rigorous research will offer some answers, helping more of the efforts to stay the course.