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Changing systems – is collective impact the answer?

Alex Sutton, Senior Grants Manager

Two of our Senior Grants Managers, Alex Sutton and Ruth Pryce recently attended the 2017 Collective Impact Forum conference in Boston to learn more about Collective Impact, this is the second of a series of two blogs sharing their thoughts. You can find the first blog in this series here.

Collective Impact can be defined as the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem. Collective Impact involves a defined infrastructure, a structured process, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants – more background and practice examples can be found here.

Collective Impact has a lot of people in philanthropy excited. When our existing systems lead to increased inequality, poverty and exclusion, new solutions are desperately needed. With this in mind, I travelled out to Boston to attend the Collective Impact Forum conference to take a deep dive into this practice. I heard about local, regional and national initiatives in the US and Canada, tackling difficult issues such as the prevalence of premature births amongst Black and Hispanic communities leading to higher mortality rates. I heard inspirational stories of passion and commitment from those in the thick of it, trying to bring about change in their communities.

Learning and practice of collective impact initiatives has moved on in recent years. The introduction of 8 principles of practice to sit alongside the 5 conditions of collective impact is a welcome development, bringing a focus on equity and community engagement. However, I find myself returning to the UK not entirely convinced and with more questions explored further below.

At what system level are Collective Impact initiatives most effective?

There was a lot of discussion about the potential links between collective impact initiatives and systems change, however this was not always supported by evidence. The examples given pointed to either local or regional change in policy or practice, or improved collaboration amongst the diverse partners in an initiative. I thought these were examples of great work, but not examples of systems level change.

This led me to question how narrow or broad should we define a system to establish a collective effort and align resources in order to get traction. Is collective impact most effective at achieving change at a ‘sub’ system level because working at a whole system level is simply too unwieldly? And does this risk mistaking the tweaking of an existing system for system transformation? Improving financial inclusion for community members does not necessarily transform the system which structurally excludes them.

What evidence exists that working in collaboration with cross sector partners leads to systems change?

This led me to my next question – do the cross sector partners involved in a collective impact initiative compromise its ability to achieve systems change? There was an implicit assumption at the forum that better collaborations amongst diverse partners leads to systems change.

But when are diverse coalitions useful and when do they create conflicts of interest that undermine the pursuit of transformational change? One plenary session focused on engaging businesses and private sector entities as partners in collective impact initiatives. The conversation soon moved to funding collective impact so that initiatives were not reliant on grant income from Foundations, however question around accountability and incentives were not delved into. Do some forms of investment like Social Impact Bonds shift the agenda from systems change to immediate outcomes? And what happens when private sector practices are part of the system you are trying to change, for example through exploitative work conditions or predatory lending? When do coalitions which work within systems need to be abandoned in favour of wholesale opposition to a system which can’t be fixed?

Should philanthropy be focused on movement building instead of Collective Impact?

I was struck by the number of evaluators present at the Forum, and there was a real appetite to understand what works. Interestingly, the evaluator led sessions I attended focused on the development rather than the impact of the collective impact initiative (of which there is little evidence at a national or systems level), and I think this pointed to something. My biggest take-away from the conference was that collective impact can provide a useful structure within which strong collaborative relationships can be developed as they progress toward a shared goal. It can provide them with a language to talk about their work and shared endeavour. In this case the shared goal provides an incentive to work together, inevitably achieving more than the sum of their parts, however the value isn’t measured in achieving that goal but in the depth of their relationships.

So I came away thinking about the role of the funder in all of this. Collective impact initiatives fall down when they are imposed in a top down manner, so perhaps the most useful contribution a funder can make is to fund the conditions in which multiple collective impact initiatives and other collaborative initiatives can develop. This would involve funding issue neutral organisations that build the capabilities of any number of initiatives, such as data labs that can develop baseline data and other useful data sets to support learning, leadership institutes, organising academies, and strategic communication hubs to support framing and the development of collaborative identities[1]. I see this as a movement building funding strategy – supporting the ecosystem rather than any single collaborative. Access to these institutions also offers funders the chance to connect and turbo-charge a portfolio of organisations they resource that work on a shared issue.

This means funders having to lose control, paying less attention to designing and setting up new collective impact initiatives and more attention to funding the civic institutions which connect organisations and creates the conditions for collaboration to emerge and thrive. And when these conditions are in place, the role of the funder cannot be a passive one. Funders will have to steward partner organisations towards these opportunities and to each other, convene in a purposeful manner, and when collaborative initiatives do emerge be responsive and show commitment to its partners.

Please do share your thoughts and responses in the comments section below.

[1] For more on this it’s worth looking at the brilliant Constellation Governance Model developed by the Canadian Centre for Social Innovation for “a complexity-inspired framework designed to ‘hold’ collaborations within dynamic systems”


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  • Ken Thompson

    All good questions! It’s quite challenging to evaluate CI, and what evaluation there is can be hard to find. I do think there is more evaluative evidence than you seem to indicate in your article. You may be interested in this evaluation of 21 cities working to increase youth education and employment, which specifically looks at the ‘systems change’ question as it relates to CI approaches. This info is preliminary, and based on self-report, but it does seem to show important systems changes are happening in CI projects.