Collective Impact and Systems Change: Missing Links

By Greg Landsman

In winter 2011, the consulting group FSG wrote an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) introducing the idea of collective impact.1 Citing the work of Cincinnati, Ohio’s StrivePartnership as a prime example, the article argued that “large-scale social change comes from better cross-sector coordination rather than from the isolated intervention of individual organizations.”2 FSG reviewed StrivePartnership’s work, concluded that it represented collective impact in action, and developed five high-level conditions based on aspects of the work in Cincinnati that were deemed important to StrivePartnership’s success: a common agenda; shared measurement; mutually reinforcing activities; continuous communication; and backbone community support.

The article launched countless collective impact efforts, led some to rename their existing work collective impact, and even helped a few leaders from StrivePartnership to establish a national network of communities-called StriveTogether-to support others who were doing similar work to that of StrivePartnership. FSG’s portrayal of StrivePartnership, however, provided an incomplete view of the kind of systems-change work being pursued: it left out key structural components of the initiative that enabled sustainable social change-such as the vital importance of changing the behaviors of those operating in a system, oftentimes through leadership training, coalition building, community organizing, and a long-term commitment to change.

FSG was able to popularize the concept of collective impact-which is, arguably, a good thing: we do, of course, want people working together. But we believe that the systems-change approach, while more complicated and long term in nature, will produce more reliable improvements in outcomes, and do so in a sustainable way. FSG was able to capture a few of the headlines of the work in Cincinnati, but a more complete review of the approach would have required more time on the ground and the kind of practical experience that would have put the Cincinnati work into an understandable context. Actually doing the work exposes one to the nuances and complexities of systems-change effort. In the absence of that, a truly deep dive into an initiative is required-and even then, things will get missed.

Our intention is not to criticize FSG or the article. We recognize the challenges of fully capturing such complex work, and without going into great detail here, StrivePartnership was working on-and continues to work on-changing systems. Collective impact is, perhaps, part of the more complicated work of systems change-but only a part.

With the success that Cincinnati was experiencing, especially in terms of the partnership’s shared outcomes moving in the right direction, other cities began to call, and a small cohort of communities came together to begin to share best practices. It was clear that to help…READ MORE