Updating Collective Impact Initiatives to Include Equity

Large-scale social change involving issues such as global warming, racial justice, economic development or education generally isn’t possible for individual nonprofits. An approach known as “collective impact” coordinates organizations across multiple sectors to tackle these larger issues. Here’s what you need to know before signing on to such an initiative.

What is it?

Collective impact is more than just collaboration. Its originators describe the phrase as the commitment of a group of important players from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem. That includes the nonprofits themselves, government, businesses and constituent communities.

In the Stanford Social Innovation Review article that introduced the concept in 2011, the authors explicitly contrast collective impact with collaboration. Unlike most collaborations, they explain, collective impact initiatives involve a centralized infrastructure, dedicated staff and a structured process. Adherents of collective impact have typically cited five prerequisites that together produce the alignment necessary for successful initiatives:

  1. A common agenda in which all participants in the initiative have a shared vision for change, based on a common understanding of the problem and their goals.
  2. Shared measurement systems in which each of the participants takes the same approach to data collection and metrics to ensure the continued alignment of efforts, foster accountability and facilitate the kind of information sharing that can make it easier to meet goals.
  3. Mutually reinforcing activities where each participant is encouraged to pursue the activities at which it excels, in a way that both supports and coordinates with its fellow participants’ activities.
  4. Continuous communication that fosters trust among stakeholders, so that they work together to share information and solve problems.
  5. A backbone support organization with its own infrastructure to provide the “backbone” for the project. The backbone entity needs its own dedicated staff to plan, manage and support the initiative.

For collective impact action to succeed, the approach requires “nonprofit management organizations” with the skills and resources to coordinate the necessary elements.

What’s new?

In 2022, the authors of the original article updated the collective impact concept. In their new article, they state that collective impact needs to be redefined to “center equity.” What’s equity? The authors have settled on a definition from research and advocacy organization Urban Strategies Council:

“Equity is fairness and justice achieved through systematically assessing disparities in opportunities, outcomes, and representation and redressing [those] disparities through targeted actions.”

Thus, the new definition of collective impact is:

“a network of community members, organizations, and institutions that advance equity by learning together, aligning, and integrating their actions to achieve population and systems-level change.”

So, to better center equity, the authors add five new strategies to the original five:

  1. Ground the work in data and context, and target solutions.
  2. Focus on systems change, in addition to programs and services.
  3. Shift power within the collaborative.
  4. Listen to and act with community.
  5. Build equity leadership and accountability.

According to the authors, these aren’t new strategies, but nonprofits will need to focus on them to achieve collective impact success.

Holistic approach

While the evaluation of a nonprofit project frequently focuses on a project’s outcomes, you need to look at a collective impact initiative holistically and consider all parts of the “puzzle.” Consider the effectiveness of an initiative’s changemaking process, including its structure and operations. You’ll also need to review ways influencers of the targeted issues are changing and the degree of progress made toward the ultimate goals.

If your nonprofit is involved with large-scale social change, participating in a collective impact initiative may be the next step. Remember, though, that each organization that joins such an initiative must give each project component the attention it warrants to meet collective goals.