Five years ago, an article by FSG’s John Kania and Mark Kramer sparked a nationwide wave of interest in collective impact—a new model of collaboration among public, private, and nonprofit actors that emphasizes a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and “backbone” support organizations. 

The authors presented the idea of collective impact as a paradigm shift—away from the status quo of uncoordinated and under-utilized efforts to affect social change, and toward a more cooperative, integrated, and effective deployment of existing resources. Today, a simple Google search yields 416,000 hits for “collective impact,” and the term regularly makes its way in conversations among foundation and nonprofit leaders. But it's important to note that the idea of collective impact—even the relatively new initiatives on which Kania and Kramer based their model—didn’t emerge from a vacuum. 

At Columbia University’s Teachers College, we’re in the midst of a three-year research project commissioned by The Wallace Foundation to investigate collective impact and cross-sector collaborations for education more generally. We’ve released an extensive literature review and a nationwide scan of the websites of 182 collaborations, and we have three major case studies (in Buffalo, New York; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Portland, Oregon) and five smaller case studies underway. 

A Long Tradition of Collaboration

Our research suggests that there is a long tradition of cross-sector collaboration—particularly in education—that predates the emergence of collective impact, and from which this new model can draw useful lessons about navigating local politics, building diverse coalitions, and sustaining enthusiasm and funding. Formulating specific lessons will call for more qualitative work such as the case studies we are conducting now, but we’ve gleaned some insight into the overall shape and form of current collaborative efforts, including some that began as many as four decades ago. 

Our website scan captured publicly available information about programs that met a certain set of criteria: they had to be place-based and education-focused, include the participation at top leadership levels of at least two sectors (such as education and government), and have school system officials playing a prominent role. 

One characteristic we tracked was the start date of each collaboration, based on the year it acquired its current name. We found that well over half of the collaborations in the scan were launched before 2011, and nearly 20 percent were launched before 2000. An intriguing aspect of local collaborations’ historical development is how some contemporary examples have evolved in response to changing community needs, politics, and technology, offering encouragement that the general idea of collaboration is flexible and sustainable. 

The Los Angeles Promise Neighborhood—which traces its origin to the Youth Policy Institute (YPI), a nonprofit organization founded in 1983—exemplifies how longstanding efforts can evolve. YPI initially focused on national planning and community development consulting, but as national policy and funding opportunities shifted, so did its focus. By the late 1990s, YPI had developed a deliberate strategy of blending multiple funding streams to create place-based initiatives, providing an array of education, training, and technology services in partnership with families and other public and private organizations. From 1995 to 2000, YPI partnered with 13 Hope VI programs across the United States, an initiative of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development that targeted public housing projects for revitalization. In 2010, YPI applied for and won one of 21 US Department of Education Promise Neighborhood planning grants. 

“Rebranding” Efforts

It is noteworthy that so many older initiatives have rebranded themselves as collective impact. Indeed, more than one in four collaborations established before the publication of the 2011 Kania and Kramer article now uses the term “collective impact” somewhere on their websites. (The respective proportion for collaborations started after 2011 is roughly two thirds.) One possible reason for doing this is that they are capitalizing on the term to gain access to the financial resources, reputation, and publicity that swirl around the collective impact universe. Another is that they see something genuinely new about the contemporary model and are signing on to access the national informational networks that are part of the scene.

More than half of the collaborations that started after 2011, and more than one in three of those started prior to 2011 have affiliated themselves with a national network such as StriveTogether, Say Yes to Education, and Promise Neighborhoods. The popularity of these networks suggests that local collaborations expect them to add value in facilitating cross-program learning, shared resources, national visibility, and political clout. However, we can’t yet disentangle the relative priority that collaborations place on each of these potential benefits, or whether they believe the networks actually are delivering on that anticipated promise.

While the existence of older collaborations seems encouraging for sustainability, it is unclear what their longevity suggests. Do they still exist because they haven’t yet solved the problems they came together to address? Or has their success in ameliorating (or eliminating) problems earned them the legitimacy and support they need to continue their work?

It’s also important to consider what these numbers don’t tell us. For example, our scan doesn’t include initiatives that launched but failed to gain traction, lost funding, exhausted leaders, or faded from the scene before we collected our data. If there were many of these, it might serve as a reminder to those building contemporary efforts that they should not count on initial enthusiasm to carry them forward. The scan also doesn’t tell us why some efforts adapted and others did not.

A New Sense of Urgency?

Changes in the broad economic, political, and policy environments may be creating a greater sense of urgency around social issues, motivating more local groups to work together. For example, the popularity of the movement by families to “opt-out” of standardized testing, and the changes Congress made in December when reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (to rein in some of the more directive aspects of federal policy under the Obama-Duncan administration) suggest growing disillusionment with the top-down, school-centered initiatives that have characterized school reform since 2000. Recognizing that they can’t count on Washington, DC, or their state capitals to provide a surefire blueprint for success may encourage local actors to spend less effort competing with one another for outside support and more effort channeling their energies toward building common ground.

One potentially promising aspect of newer collaborations is that municipal and school district officials are more strongly represented on their governing boards. About 29 percent of the contemporary wave of collaborations have a mayor on their board, and about two-thirds have a superintendent. Of the collaborations that started before 2011, roughly one in four have a mayor, and slightly less than half have a superintendent. Such developments may help set the stage for more effective and sustainable reform. 

Our research offers insight into the shape and form of contemporary cross-sector collaborations for education, and our website scan delivers breadth. Our upcoming case studies will dig deeper into the mechanisms for influence and sustainability, the nature of decision-making, the perspectives of community members and collaborative partners, and the emerging obstacles that define these initiatives. Despite the intense interest local, cross-sector collaborations have engendered in some cities and among philanthropic funders, they haven’t yet established a strong constituency among state and national policymakers, or sparked the kind of extended research needed to establish their importance. We hope our efforts will serve as a catalyst.