What separates collective impact efforts that spin their wheels from those that continue to gain traction for years to come?

After working on multiple collective initiatives over the years—including efforts to reduce poverty, improve workforce development and early childhood development systems, and end homelessness—as well as regional collaborations, it’s clear that the idea of shared management and collective commitments is attractive to those working to bring about social change. Yet managing one that has true staying power is remarkably challenging.

First incubated at the local United Way in 1998, Homeward—a nonprofit coordinating agency targeting homelessness in Richmond, Virginia became independent in 2006, and the following year, launched a collective action plan to end homelessness in the area in 10 years’ time. As a consultant to social change efforts (Saphira) and the executive director of Homeward (Kelly), we signed up to help recalibrate the initiative during its last three years, 2015-2018. The effort has many features of a collective impact approach: some 30 public and private agencies share a vision; regularly collect and interpret data; accomplish their work through a hub of work groups; and are guided by a backbone organization that has public and private funding sources, and community recognition. Working together, these agencies have contributed to an almost 30 percent drop in homelessness since 2009. 

During the effort’s first seven years, the regional community came together around a common vision for reducing homelessness. During our recalibration, our planning team kept the collective vision intact while paring down and focusing the strategies. In the process, we learned what makes a “second-generation” collective impact effort likely to succeed. Four elements in particular are essential to keep the flame burning: results, people, focus, and information.

1.  Results: Align and Deliver

The best coalitions are those where members will go to the mat with the backbone organization, because they see the effort as critical to getting results, and the benefits of their participation far outweigh the costs. This kind of loyalty comes from witnessing things getting done and by aligning multiple sources of funding to address a single problem.

In Greater Richmond, for example, Homeward integrated its efforts with a federally mandated method of planning for coordinated homeless and housing services called a “Continuum of Care,” thereby linking the network with the allocation of approximately $4.5 million annually. The coalition also aligned its work with state and federal initiatives that emphasize permanent housing over emergency solutions. The alignment, combined with generous private sector funding, resulted in more housing placements for people experiencing homelessness and reinforced the value of working together, accomplishing a magnitude of change together that no one organization could have done on its own.

2.  People: Develop and Share Leadership

Strategies succeed because there are proven leaders within the workgroups and a bench of individuals at the intermediary organization who drive the collaborative strategy. The effort is not led by one “czar” housed in one agency, or reliant on a single champion who leads, coordinates, and represents the work.

Homeward has developed ambassadors and managers within the workgroups it coordinates, among its board members, and throughout the community’s public and private agencies. It has emerged as the go-to entity for policy, planning, and action on homelessness for the region. This coalition of invested participants allows the Homeward team to play the role of convener, data collector, policy analyst, and mobilizer. Yet the effort relies on the leadership of agencies finding solutions to homelessness—both at a direct-service level, and by continuing to implement and report on a coordinated approach.

Shared leadership is touted widely as a fundamental ingredient of effective collective action, yet it is often a delicate balance for backbone agencies to maintain. The trick to going the distance is to remain lean, deploying leadership to engage and build the capacity of those in the community to accelerate the results.   

3.  Focus: Keep the Mission Manageable

Success does not necessarily mean growth in the scope or mission of the backbone organization. By nature, collective impact efforts are ambitious, and many have written about the importance of defining the conditions of success and honing in on the populations in need prior to launch. Once underway, staying focused allows second-generation efforts to target their resources and realistically appraise whether they are making a difference, whereas expanding the scope, without the capacity and networks to deliver, can diffuse energy and resources.

In Richmond, the recalibrated plan offered the coalition a way to prioritize strategies and set more-precise quantitative goals, despite increasing community pressure to expand the definition of the target population and spread out funding. The original plan assumed that the region’s federal homeless funds would support only “eligible” populations—a specific group of families residing in shelters or those on the street. Understandably, stakeholders were frustrated that federal funds were not more flexible; for example, we couldn’t use them to help families living in unstable mobile home parks—a pressing regional problem. The planning committee in 2015 fashioned a compromise, expanding the scope of the plan beyond the limitations of federal funding to help those at serious risk of homelessness find secure housing: Private funds would support this effort, while the limited federal funds would support those with the most immediate needs.

4.  Information: Keep Data Alive

Building the capacity to collect and analyze data—both formal (consumer surveys, demographics) and informal (discussion sessions)—remains essential to understanding, acting on, and improving conditions. Continuously seeking input and checking in on trends keeps the strategy relevant. During the 2015 plan, for example, interviews with regional government representatives, and discussions with individuals and families who were seeking housing led the coalition to streamline the region’s central assessment and intake process.

Similarly, Homeward has worked with its partners to input data into a regional management system that allows for comparisons between types of housing and sheltering programs, as well as an annual count of persons who are homeless in the region. With data indicating that 70 percent of homeless individuals in Greater Richmond had been in and out of jail, Homeward and the local community foundation reached out to representatives of the criminal justice system and individuals coming out of jail. This outreach generated a new endowment at the foundation, and sparked an increase in public and private resources to connect ex-offenders to housing.

The success of mature collective efforts comes from nurturing and reconnecting members continuously, and having a coalition that is nimble and connected enough to the people it serves to address new opportunities and challenges as they come up. The primary result of Homeward’s regional recalibration was to reinvigorate and focus the coalition members to continue to do the hard work necessary to deliver results. This kind of managerial approach may be exactly what second-generation collective impact efforts need to stay fresh, relevant, and to reach their aspirational goals.