Collective Impact in the Rust Belt

“Large-scale social change requires broad cross-sector coordination, yet the social sector remains focused on the isolated intervention of individual organizations.” John Kania & Mark Kramer

The term Rust Belt hints at some of the pervasive problems of our great region. Here, we don’t need to be reminded of the need for innovative solutions to inner city foreclosure, neighborhood vacancy and blight, homelessness, unemployment, the achievement gap in education, fresh water contamination, health disparities, and much more.

And yet, despite widespread knowledge of the complexity of these challenges, many of us—including funders, social enterprises, governments and non-profits—continue to seek solutions in individual programs or organizations. It took much more than a single or even a few organizations to create these problems, and it’s going to take more to solve them.

Scaling up single, albeit innovative, programs and replicating them won’t be enough. Neither will short-term public-private partnerships or collaborations. What we need is something more powerful, adaptive, and sustained.

Collective Impact is a meme that began spreading with an article by John Kania and Mark Kramer in the Winter 2011 issue of the Stanford Social Innovation Review. David Bornstein covered the topic shortly after in several New York Times articles. It is a method through which a group of key players from different sectors commit to a common agenda in order to solve a specific social problem. But it is no ordinary collaboration.

Collective Impact initiatives are long-term commitments marked by:

  • A common agenda
  • A shared measurement system
  • Mutually reinforcing activities
  • Ongoing communication
  • An independent backbone organization

In short, it is a method by which the whole can become more than the sum of its parts. Best practices of Collective Impact include:

  • Strive, an initiative that has brought together 300 education-related organizations in the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky region to develop common goals, evidence-based strategies, and shared metrics for regional impact,
  • The 100,000 Homes Campaign, which coordinates efforts to place the chronically homeless in permanent supportive housing,
  • Shape Up Somerville, a community-wide effort to reduce weight gain among children in Somerville, MA,
  • The Elizabeth River Project, a cross-sector initiative to restore the Elizabeth River in Portsmouth, VA, and
  • The Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions, which connects 16 conservation organizations in the U.S. and Canada to build a sustainable seafood industry.

The idea of Collective Impact has taken off to the degree that is the theme of the upcoming United Front conference on October 6th in St. Paul, Minnesota:

Despite the clear benefits of strengthening the efficiency, knowledge, and effectiveness of an entire system that affects complex social issues—including the possibility of building viable and lasting solutions—the task remains daunting for some. In response to a reader who asked how to get top-level leaders to agree to volunteer time and resources, Bornstein wrote simply, “By getting the right people together.”
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