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Learn how to use a collective impact approach to address complex social problems.








Cover Image of Collective Insights on Collective Impact, linking to the full document.


Many funders and health and human service organizations aim to make progress on large and complex social problems – such as improving educational outcomes for all children, reducing homelessness, or improving community health outcomes.  This has proved challenging for all of us.

This community-level work goes by different names and associated models—including collaborative action, community mobilization, and comprehensive initiatives. One version of this approach is known as “collective impact.” Collective impact refers to the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem at scale. Like other models in Chapter 2 of the Community Tool Box, this section aims to provide an overview of this approach and links to resources for its implementation.



A premise of the collective impact approach is that not all problems are created equal – some are simple, some are more complicated, and some are truly complex.  Each type requires a somewhat different approach to solving them.

  • An example of a simple problem is baking a cake – the right “recipe” is essential, but once you’ve discovered it, replication will get you almost the same result every time. 
  • An example of a complicated problem is sending a rocket to the moon – the right “protocols and formulas” are needed, as are high levels of expertise and training.  Experience is built over time to get to the right result, which can be repeated over time with the expectation of success.
  • An example of a complex problem is raising a child - there are no “right” recipes or protocols that work in every situation. There are many outside factors that influence the situation, and every situation is unique. Experience helps, but in no way guarantees success.

A single service program may be quite appropriate to addressing problems that are simple or only somewhat complicated. Collective impact, however, is an approach to solving complex social problems.

Taking a collective impact approach requires moving away from the traditional, more isolated ways that service organizations attempt to solve problems. Traditional, isolated approaches to making an impact on outcomes often look like this:

  • Funders select individual grantees
  • Organizations seeking to implement change work separately and often compete against each for funding
  • Evaluation is structured to isolate a particular organization’s impact to show progress
  • Large-scale change is assumed to depend upon scaling individual organizations or interventions
  • Corporate and public sectors are not heavily involved in the process

Like other approaches to collaborative action, the collective impact approach engages multiple players in working together to solve complex social problems:

  • Funders and implementers understand that social problems – and their solutions – arise from the interaction of many organizations within a larger system
  • Organizations actively coordinate their actions and share lessons learned
  • Progress depends on working toward the same goal and measuring the same things
  • Large-scale change depends on increasing cross-sector alignment and learning among many organizations
  • Corporate and public sectors are essential partners

What Is Collective Impact?

As noted above, collective impact is the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem at scale.

Organizations have been implementing collective impact for a long time. These successful collective impact initiatives often assure five conditions that are associated with their relative success:

  • Common Agenda
    • All participants share a vision for change that includes a common understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving the problem through agreed-upon actions.
  • Shared Measurement
    • All participating organizations agree on the ways success will be measured and reported, with a short list of common indicators identified and used for learning and improvement.
  • Mutually Reinforcing Activities
    • A diverse set of stakeholders, typically across sectors, coordinate a set of differentiated activities through a mutually reinforcing plan of action.
  • Continuous Communication
    • All players engage in frequent and structured open communication to build trust, assure mutual objectives, and create common motivation.
  • Backbone Support
    • An independent, funded staff dedicated to the initiative provides ongoing support by guiding the initiative’s vision and strategy, supporting aligned activities, establishing shared measurement practices, building public will, advancing policy, and mobilizing resources.

Below is a select list of Community Tool Box resources supporting implementation of a collective impact approach.

Common Agenda

Shared Measurement

Mutually Reinforcing Activities

Continuous Communication

Backbone Support

The term “collective impact” was first referenced in a 2011 article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. 

Momentum around collective impact is building. Collective impact initiatives continue to pursue social change in a variety of areas and momentum around the approach continues to grow. Some examples of collective impact in different fields or domains can be seen below:

In education

In public health

In addressing homelessness

In youth development

In economic/urban development

In community development

In addressing environmental issues

When Is a Collective Impact Approach Appropriate?

You can use the following readiness assessment to determine if a collective impact approach is appropriate for your situation. This assessment is most valuable when completed by a group of stakeholders committed to addressing a specific social or environmental issue, and the results and implications are discussed together.

  • Is a collective impact approach appropriate for pursuing your goals?
    • There are many forms of collaboration, each suited to address different types of social and environmental issues. Consider whether you are addressing complex, large-scale social and environmental issues at scale. Do you have the time and resources required?
  • Do the pre-conditions exist for the potential success of a collective impact approach?
    • Do you have present: influential champions, sufficient resources to support the planning process and infrastructure, and the urgency to address the issue in new and different ways.
  • Are the nuts and bolts for a collective impact approach already in place?
    • If your group has determined that this collaborative approach is appropriate to use, and the pre-conditions are in place, we suggest using the following in-depth readiness assessment to take stock of the extent to which the nuts and bolts are in place to begin your work.

Collective impact is not right for every problem. The process can take a long time and requires significant resources to sustain – resources from partners making new investments and changing their practices, as well as from supporting the underlying backbone infrastructure.

How Do You Implement a Collective Impact Approach?

Before implementation of this approach can begin, the organizations and individuals involved must embrace the logic of collaborative, adaptive and servant leadership.

  • Pay attention to adaptive work, not just technical solutions: The group has to move away from thinking about technical solutions, which are best suited for simple and complicated problems, and begin to think about adaptive solutions to problems which require continuous learning.
  • Look for silver buckshot instead of the silver bullet:  Achieving population-level change, the ultimate goal for collective impact initiatives, requires all stakeholders to abandon the search for a single silver bullet solution. Instead, they must shift their mindset and recognize that success comes from the combination of many interventions.
  • Sharing credit is as important as taking credit: Seeking to take direct credit is extremely difficult in large-scale collaborations where change is being created by many actors simultaneously.  Organizations should think about their decisions in the context of others, and share credit with the group to encourage greater collaboration and cohesion.


Collaborative action of this type can generally be categorized by levels of maturity, or phases. (Every initiative is unique, however, and should be rooted in the local context and readiness of stakeholders.) Some generalizations about phases:

  • Phase  1: Assess Readiness
    • Conduct a readiness and landscape assessment (assess complexity and urgency of problem, assess history of collaboration, identify existing local collaborations, identify potential champions, determine resources)
  • Phase 2: Initiate Action
    • Kick off steering committee
    • Begin community outreach
    • Create baseline landscape and data mapping
    • Secondary research on other collaboratives
  • Phase 3: Organize for Impact
    • Create common agenda: clear  problem definition, common vision, population level goal, basic theory of change
    • Develop high level population goal
    • Solicit and incorporate community perspective/voice
  • Phase 4: Begin Implementation
  • Phase 5: Sustain Action and Impact
    • Begin implementing strategies and measuring indicators
    • Collect and use data to learn and refine strategies, and identify quick wins
    • Evolve steering committee and working group composition to match adaptive strategies
    • Continue ongoing activities to share initiative progress and gain community input

Who Should Be Engaged By Your Collective Impact Effort?

Cover image of Understanding the Value of Backbone Organizations in Collective Impact, linking to the full document.

As we noted earlier in this chapter, one of the common features of a collective impact is that it is cross-sector. Complex problems can be solved only by cross-sector coalitions that engage those outside the nonprofit sector (or any other single sector).

However, it isn’t just who you bring together, but how you bring them together. The structures that collaborative efforts create enable people to come together regularly to look at data and learn from one another, to understand what is working and what is not.  The main key structural components of a collective impact approach are the steering committee, working groups, backbone support, and community engagement.

 The Constellation Model of Collaborative Social Change, by Tonya Surman and Mark Surman, 2008.”

Steering Committee

Collaborative action almost always begins with the establishment of an oversight group, often called a steering committee or executive committee. The key responsibilities of the steering committee are to:

  • Provide long term strategic direction to the initiative
  • Oversee the work of the backbone
  • Determine staff and resource needs to ensure sustainability, in coordination with the Executive Team,
  • Monitoring progress against common agenda goals and indicators to ensure continued advancement and to uncover any obstacles
  • Review data and using it to inform changes in stakeholder engagement, working group composition, or strategies
  • Provide guidance to working groups’ efforts
  • Champion the effort broadly in the community

The composition of the steering committee is vital to the success of the initiative, as they will set the initiative’s strategic direction. There are a few key characteristics to look for when selecting steering committee members:

  • Decision Makers: Members should be at the CEO/President Level and able to drive systems change relevant to effort
  • Representative: Geographic coverage of effort (counties and subregional steering committees) as well as sector
  • Influential Champions: Command respect of broader set of stakeholders (and perceived so). Can bring stakeholders to the table and keep them there. Can champion the strategy with the broader community
  • Content Expertise/Practitioners: Familiar with subject matter to contribute substantively
  • Passion and Urgency: Passionate about issue and feel real urgency for the need to change
  • Focused on the Greater Interest: Represent needs of their own organizations but able to think and act in the greater interest of the community
  • Commitment: Willing and able to commit time and energy to attend meetings and get work done
  • Lived Experience: Residents or community members with lived experience on the issue being addressed by the initiative

The highest functioning steering committees tend to have two co-chairs, each from a different agency/organization; meet at least quarterly (often monthly at first); have diverse, cross-sectoral membership drawn and rotational leadership; coordinate activity with working groups and other coalitions via the backbone leadership and working group chairs; communicate regularly within the Steering Committee based on agreed upon schedule and methods; and report processes, findings, and concerns to stakeholders.

Working Groups

Once the strategic action framework is agreed upon, different working groupsalso known as action committees—are formed around each of its primary leverage points or strategies. The key responsibilities of the working groups are to:

  • Identify effective strategies to support achievement of goals:
    • Collect research on effective evidence-informed strategies
    • Use data to inform identification of strategies
    • Suggest refinement of indicators based on strategy development (as needed)
    • Identify funding sources and local  agencies to support strategies
  • Community engagement:
    • Convene relevant stakeholder dialogues and other forms of community engagement
    • Coordinate communications messages and strategy with other working groups
  • Implementation:
    • Coordinate activities among working group member agencies and others in the community to implement strategies
    • Dedicate time to tactics of planning events, identifying volunteers, and other tasks

The highest functioning working groups tend to have at least two co-chairs, each from a different agency; meet at least monthly, sometimes more often at first; have diverse, cross-sectoral membership and rotational leadership; coordinate activity with other working groups via the backbone leadership and other working group chairs; communicate regularly within working groups based on agreed upon schedule and methods; and report processes, findings and concerns to the steering committee.

Backbone Support

Backbone support is provided by an independent funded staff and dedicated to the collective impact initiative. Backbones provide ongoing support in the following six areas:

  • Guide Vision and Strategy:
    • Build a common understanding of the problem that needs to be addressed
    • Provide strategic guidance to develop a common agenda; serve as a thought leader / standard bearer for the initiative
  • Support Aligned Activities:
    • Ensure mutually reinforcing activities take place, i.e.,
      • Coordinate and facilitate partners’ continuous communication and collaboration Convene partners and key external stakeholders
      • Catalyze or incubate new initiatives or collaborations
      • Provide technical assistance to build management and administrative capacity (e.g., coaching and mentoring, providing training and fundraising support)
      • Create paths for, and recruit, new partners so they become involved
      • Seek out opportunities for alignment with other efforts
  • Establish Shared Measurement Practices:
    • Collect, analyze, interpret, and report data
    • Catalyze or develop shared measurement systems
    • Provide technical assistance for building partners’ data capacity
  • Build Public Will:
    • Build public will, consensus and commitment:
      • Frame the problem to create a sense of urgency and articulate a call to action
      • Support community member engagement activities
      • Produce and manage communications (e.g., news releases, reports)
  • Advance Policy:
    • Advocate for an aligned policy agenda
  • Mobilize Resources:
    • Mobilize and align public and private resources to support initiative’s goals

It is vitally important that a backbone is viewed as neutral by the stakeholders on the steering committee and in the wider community.  However, when understanding backbones, it is just as important to understand what backbones are not. Backbones do not set the agenda for the group, do not drive all the solutions, do not receive all the funding, cannot be self-appointed rather than selected by the community, and is not “business as usual” in terms of staffing, time, and resources. They are a facilitative support team who can plan, manage, and support the initiative through ongoing facilitation, technology and communications support, data collection and reporting, and handling the myriad logistical and administrative details needed for the initiative to function smoothly.

There is no one model of backbone support. We’ve identified five potential models, although this is not necessarily an exhaustive list:

  • Funder-Based: One funder initiates a collective impact strategy as planner, financier, and convener
  • New Nonprofit: New entity is created, often by private funding, to serve as backbone
  • Existing Nonprofit: Established nonprofit takes the lead in coordinating strategy
  • Government: Government entity, either at local or state level, drives the effort
  • Shared Across Multiple Organizations: Numerous organizations take ownership of the wins

Community Engagement

Cover image of Collective Impact, Stanford Social Innovation Review, Winter 2011, linking to the full document.In collaborative action, it is vitally important to include multiple organizations or sectors – business, nonprofit, government, and philanthropy. However, it is equally important to engage the community. Effective community engagement is a critical factor in the long-term success of collective impact initiatives.

When considering community engagement, it is important to do both broad based community engagement – which seeks to reach a large and varied set of stakeholders within a community, including the general public rather than a targeted group of experts, leaders, or special interest groups – and targeted community engagement – which seeks to engage a particular group, often one that is under-represented or otherwise not engaging in an initiative without such a specialized effort.

How the community is engaged depends upon the goals of the initiative and how the community can best plug into those goals. A few of the ways a community can be engaged, based on thinking from Tamarack Institute, are shown below:

  • Understand pressing systemic community challenges
    • Begin a process of understanding the issue
    • Clarify questions that arise during the process
  • Co-create solutions
    • Spark innovative problem-solving rooted in the “lived-experience” of the community
    • Identify and spread unique solutions that exist within the community
  • Verify the direction
    • Get feedback on specific strategies and indicators from selected communities
  • Expand the reach of involvement
    • Expand the reach of adoption of initiative strategies
    • Evoke and sustain the will to take aligned action
  • Build community capacity to lead and sustain change
    • Train stakeholders in skills of effective collaboration and strategy execution (e.g., shared measurement)
    • Share resources, and learning across the community to support scaling best practices

Shared Measurement

Creating and using shared measures is a key component of a rigorous collaborative effort. Shared measurement means identifying a targeted set of indicators that everyone signs onto and pursues and then using that data both to track progress and also to improve efforts over time. This is different from the traditional paradigm of evaluation that the social sector (and other sectors) are used to, which typically focuses on isolating the impact of a single organization or grant, rather than assessing multiple organizations working together to solve a common problem.

Clearly there are many common challenges to shared measurement:

  • Competing priorities among organizations when establishing common measures
  • Capacity for data collection and analysis within organizations involved
  • Willingness to invest the time, and sometimes money, in developing a shared measurement system
  • Ability to create a culture shift from using data to prove to using data to improve, which requires overcoming the fear that organizations will be compared negatively. 

There are some simple keys to success when it comes to overcoming these challenges and successfully implementing shared measurement:

  • Effective relationship with funders - Successfully implementation of shared measures requires not only a commitment from collaborators, but also from their funders to re-align funding requirements to reflect those of the initiative; this means: strong leadership and substantial funding (multi-year) and independence from funders in devising indicators, managing system
  • Broad and Open Engagement – There needs to be broad engagement (with voluntary participation open to all organizations) during the shared measurement design process with clear expectations about confidentiality/transparency
  • Infrastructure for Deployment – Infrastructure means technological and human infrastructure – there both needs to be effective use of web-based technology, but also ongoing staffing to train people to use the measures, facilitate the shared measurement process, and make sure the data is accurate.
  • Pathways for Learning and Improvement – The power of shared measurement comes from testing and continuously improving through constant feedback; this requires a facilitated process for participants to share data and results, learn, and better coordinate efforts

For organizations that choose to take the leap and embrace shared measurement, the benefits far outweigh the costs, and they include:

  • Improved data quality
  • Greater alignment across organizations
  • The ability to track progress toward a shared goal
  • More collaborative problem-solving
  • Learning that benefits all organizations looking to solve a problem, and allows for course corrections that lead to better results

Evaluating Collective Impact

Evaluating the overall impact of an initiative is an important part of the process for all parties. Practitioners seek timely, high-quality data that enables reflection and informs strategic and tactical decision making. Funders and other supporters require an approach to performance measurement and evaluation that can offer evidence of progress toward the initiative’s goals at different points along the collective impact journey.

The change process typically involves three stages of development, each of which requires a different approach to performance measurement and evaluation:

The initiative’s early years are typically focused on understanding context and designing and implementing the initiative. This includes establishing the five core conditions of collective impact, as well as the coordinated implementation of multiple programs, activities, and campaigns, according to the initiative’s overarching strategy or theory of change.

  • Recommended approach to performance measurement: Partners should agree on a set of early performance indicators to track their progress in establishing key elements of the initiative’s infrastructure.
  • Recommended approach to evaluation: Developmental evaluation, aimed at helping partners understand their initiative’s context and learn more about how the initiative is developing.

The work of evaluating a comprehensive initiative’s context and carefully assessing the quality of its design and implementation in its early years is critically important and should not be dismissed as mere focus on process. The successful reorganization and alignment of the system of actors that are addressing a problem is itself an important outcome of the change process.

The initiative’s middle years, in which partners should expect to achieve some significant changes in patterns of behavior (e.g., changes in professional practice, changes in individual behavior) and in the way systems operate (e.g., changes in cultural norms, funding flows, public policy). These changes serve as the gateway to the initiative’s ultimate, population-level outcomes and are thus an important area of focus for both performance measurement and evaluation.

  • Recommended approach to performance measurement: Partners should use data from their initiative’s shared measurement system to determine if, where, and for whom the initiative is making progress.
  • Recommended approach to evaluation: Formative evaluation to help partners refine, improve, and fine-tune this work, as well as developmental evaluation to explore newer aspects of the initiative.

The initiative’s later years, in which CI partners should expect to achieve meaningful, measurable change with regard to the initiative’s ultimate goal(s). At this time, the initiative may be ready for a summative evaluation to assess its impact, merit, value, or significance.

In Summary

Collective impact—like other models in Chapter 2 of the Community Tool Box—offers a  promising approach to addressing complex social problems at scale.


This section was contributed by Jennifer Splansky Juster, Director of the Collective Impact Forum, FSG. Visit the CI Forum.

Online Resources

Advancing the Practice of Collective Impact from the Collective Impact Forum consists of a previous article by Tom Wolff, on how collective impact can lead to better results particularly for those whom collaborative efforts seek to serve, and a response written from the Forum in order to create a productive conversation.

Aligning Collective Impact Initiatives explores how to align multiple coalitions into a system collective impact initiative.

Bringing Soul to the Work of Collective Impact is an article by Michael McAfee, from the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Channeling Change: Making Collective Impact Work is a follow-up to FSG's 2011 Stanford Social Innovation Review article. It explores new examples of collective impact initiatives and provides "how to" guidance for those who seek to initiate and lead collective impact initiatives.

Committing to Collective Impact: From Vision to Implementation addresses what happens after the vision is agreed upon and how an infastructure is created that can make progress toward achieving the common agenda.

Collective Impact is the original FSG article describing collective impact, published in the Winter 2011 Stanford Social Innovation Review. The article highlights how large-scale social change requires broad cross-sector coordination, and explains how substantially greater progress could be made in alleviating many of our most serious and complex social and environmental problems if nonprofits, governments, businesses, and the public were brought together around a common agenda to create collective impact.

Download the Collective Impact Readiness Assessment Tool (PDF) from the Collective Impact Forum.

Collective Insights on Collective Impact shares cutting-edge thinking from 22 practitioners, funders, community organizers, and thought-leaders.

Download the Collective Impact Readiness Assessment Tool (PDF) from the Collective Impact Forum.

Essential Mindset Shifts for Collective Impact is part of a compilation of nine new articles about collective impact.

Equity: The Soul of Collective Impact from PolicyLink explores equity focused community action, finding sustainable solutions, and advocacy. PolicyLink is a national research and action institute advancing social and economic equity.

The Guide to Evaluating Collective Impact from the Collective Impact Forum offers practical guidance for planning and implementing evaluations of collective impact initiatives.

How Do You Successfully Put Collective Impact into Action? features the Collective Impact Principles of Practice and originally appeared on the Collective Impact Forum's website.

How Public Policy Can Support Collective Impact provides examples and recommendations of public policies that use funding streams, regulations, reporting and auditing practices, and interdepartmental collaboration to enable communities to apply the collective impact approach to tackling complex social problems.

This readiness assessment is designed for a group considering using the collective impact approach to determine if collective impact is the right approach for the social issue, and the extent to which the conditions for success are in place for the initiative to succeed.

Steering Committee and Work Group Roles is a memo that summarizes key responsibilities and was developed through FSG's work with the Health and Wellness Alliance for Children collective impact initiative.

Ten Places Where Collective Impact Gets It Wrong is an article by Tom Wolff in the Global Journal of Community Psychology Practice, where he articulates ten important issues and concerns which Collective Impact fails to adequately acknowledge, understand, and address.

Tools for Working Groups -- this toolkit includes a number of tools for Working Groups as they form, determine strategic direction, develop implementation plans, and identify measurement indicators.

The Value of Backbone Organizations in Collective Impact, originally published as a 4-part blog series on the Stanford Social Innovation Review website, shares FSG's and GCF's experience of working with a cohort of six backbone organizations in Cincinnati to help funders and practitioners understand what it takes to be a backbone and what the value of this necessary, though often behind the scenes, role is in collective impact.

What is Collective Impact? from the Collective Impact Forum.

Print Resources

(2013). Collective Impact Cast Study: Shape Up Summerville. FSG consulting firm.

Westley, F., Patton, Q.M., & Zimmerman. B. (2006) Getting to Maybe: How the World Is Changed. Toronto: Random House Canada.