The conversation on collective impact has brought out many success cases. The cross-sector, collaborative model lends itself well to organizations providing tangible, measurable benefits to communities. But what happens when the collective goal is policy change, and the path to achieve it relies on persuasion?

Ploughshares Fund’s experience supporting the recent Iran nuclear agreement illustrates that philanthropies can strongly advance their causes by combining funder and facilitator roles within a collective impact initiative advocating for a particular policy outcome. Funders have unique advantages for convening partners, evaluating network performance, and bringing new resources to joint advocacy efforts.

Diplomacy with Iran prevailed after roller coaster negotiations and an intense congressional debate. In January 2016, Iran officially came into compliance with a multilateral agreement that blocks its paths to nuclear weapons. While diplomats and lawmakers made this historic achievement possible, civil society also played its part. Ploughshares Fund invested nearly $12 million over five years to sustain a collective impact network of partners. This network, comprised of 200 individuals from 85 organizations, was a recognized leader of outside efforts to educate the public and policymakers on the profound benefits of a diplomatic solution to the Iran nuclear problem - and the repercussions of failure.

Collective Advocacy

In 2010, when the prospects for resolving the Iranian nuclear crisis were bleak, leading foreign policy practitioners strongly believed that diplomacy had the best chance of keeping Iran from getting nuclear weapons. But the political climate did not favor talking with Iran, let alone negotiating.

Policymakers needed to be certain that diplomacy was the smartest option for US national security. They also had to be sure that they would have public support if they backed diplomatic efforts. Ploughshares Fund therefore assembled a network of individuals and organizations to determine if a good deal was possible with Iran, while at the same time working to expand political space for a diplomatic approach should it prove viable.

As funders, we were in a privileged position to convene our partners, many of whom were grantees, and each brought specific talents to the network. We organized diverse groups under a collective impact approach, with a shared agenda for addressing the problem, and they applied their talents to mutually reinforcing activities. For example, nuclear experts provided technical analyses to advocates and messaging specialists, so that they could better inform the congressional and media debates. In turn, these advocates and media strategists provided experts with greater political awareness and helped identify unanswered questions the public debate had. These kinds of collaborations were the life force of the network and strengthened the quality of participants’ efforts.


From Ploughshares Fund Annual Report 2015. (Design by Melanie Doherty, illustration by Michael Hoeweler)

Ploughshares Fund embraced the role of the network's backbone organization—which, as one of the five central components of collective impact, is responsible for guiding vision and strategy, mobilizing funding, and providing other core support. We dedicated staff and resources to the day-to-day logistics, and we created platforms using open source tools for our partners to share information, log data, and report results. Simple interactions facilitating the network kept our staff in constant communication with our grantees, and we translated this feedback into agendas for weekly meetings that we convened with our partners.

Learning from the Advocates

One pillar of the collective impact model proved problematic: measurement.

Ideally, a collective initiative regularly evaluates its performance by measuring its outputs and their influence toward the overall goal. But advocacy, with persuasion as a goal, is difficult to track. Decisionmakers arrive at their position for many reasons, and it is hard to show causal linkages between activities and a policy outcome. The policymaking process fundamentally clouds the planning, execution, and assessment of advocacy efforts.

We had data, but we could draw only limited conclusions from it. In 2015, we tallied 1,194 editorials, opinion articles, and letters to the editor published in support of diplomacy with Iran. With great efficiency, grassroots organizations within the coalition drove more than 2.7 million constituent actions supporting diplomacy—including emails, petitions, and calls to Congress. Our partners could see how much public support they were generating and where it was directed, but they rarely knew the degree to which this support contributed to a lawmaker’s decision. This naturally complicated assessment of our grants and the collective impact of our network.

Advocacy requires a different approach to evaluation than other social initiatives. But as funders, we learned we had advantages at assessing outputs and outcomes of advocacy networks and grantmaking. For advocacy grants, Steven Teles and Mark Schmitt suggest that funders build capacities that can respond to subtle shifts in the political environment, assess grants as a portfolio, spread bets between different tactics, and put grant officers close to the action so they can evaluate the effectiveness of the advocates instead of just the outcomes.

The backbone organization within a collective impact initiative has such a vantage point. It has constantly updated, tactical intelligence on what strategies seem to be working better than others. The organizers can see partners’ successes, feel their frustrations, help sharpen their plans, and weigh their criticism.

Ploughshares Fund stepped into the backbone role to provide support to its grantees and help them collaborate on a specific advocacy project, but we soon realized how invaluable the insights we gleaned in this role were to informing our overall grantmaking strategy. We were better able to see the strengths and weaknesses of our grants, to assess the capacities of our partners, and seize opportunities in a fast-evolving policy environment (while pursuing new, “emergent” solutions to the shifting challenges within it) through our network.

For example, we would hear of situations where a grantee might have direct access to policymakers, but lack the immediate technical expertise to answer their questions or the ability to bring in someone who could. Grassroots organizers would come into the network with large memberships, but might need help deciding how to mobilize them around this issue. By serving as a central node, we could observe these capacities and help figure out how to provide individuals with what they needed, whether it was free advice or funding - or help finding it - to achieve their goals at a higher level.

This became a workaround to the challenge of measuring collective advocacy efforts. We could not quantitatively measure the causal impact of our grantees’ actions, but by collaborating with them at an operational level, we could qualitatively assess their capacities, influence, and value added. As the network’s backbone, we were also able look at the big picture, monitor the health of the network, and determine how to strengthen it.

Funder Collaboration

Our position as a funder also allowed us to collaborate with sister foundations such as the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Open Society Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, and many others—and ensure that our partners had the guidance and resources they needed to sustain their work.

These partnerships with both funders and grantees made our grants more effective and helped achieve a historic diplomatic victory: The agreement blocked Iran from getting a nuclear weapon and avoided a possible new war in the Middle East. It demonstrated that there is more room for funders to contribute to advocacy initiatives. Financial support for this kind of work is scarce because few foundations are willing to engage in policy advocacy, but with closer involvement, funders can help align collaborative strategies with grantmaking that is adaptive to advocacy environments—leading to a more efficient and impactful effort.