Strategic Strength in Collective Impact

by Melissa L. Boydston, Ed.D.

The Phoenix metropolitan area continues to lead lists of the fastest-growing cities across the country, and with that growth comes wide-ranging issues that add to the complexities of addressing social challenges and issues throughout our community.

It has become increasingly clear that companies, nonprofits and other community-minded organizations that want to create a sustainable and positive impact on their local communities must work together to best align their corporate social responsibility (CSR) and environment, social and governance (ESG) efforts with the collective needs and efforts of the community at large. 

While the idea of cross-sector collaboration is not new, the concept of “collective impact” has evolved to incorporate new components and strategies to improve impact and sustainability. Collective impact is an approach used to address a range of social complexities through cross-sector collaboration and partnerships. 

The social sector has many examples of partnerships, joint collaborations and networks of organizations working to achieve impact, but collective impact is different because it involves five key factors: backbone, for organizational structure, which includes a dedicated staff; shared measurement; continuous communication; mutually reinforcing activities; and a common agenda.

Collective impact is an increasingly popular approach to addressing persistent social problems. As a place-based systems approach to social change, the cross-sector collaboration is more structured and strategic, seeking to strengthen the systems structurally — both physically and socially — and the economic conditions of a community. Place-based approaches can play an important role in creating opportunities such as prioritizing common goals and strategically aligned missions and activities for communities, which generally best know their own assets and challenges. The approach is appealing with support from many across the nation; however, the strategic, cross-sector collaboration of collective impact can be challenging.

Research suggests such cross-sector collaboration is needed to address social challenges. Yet, there are challenges, such as the struggle to align shared or community-wide missions and goals with their own organizational missions and core competencies that make a collective impact approach difficult to execute, despite the willingness of organizations and communities to engage in these efforts.

For example, within the Arizona educational system are dozens of programs, initiatives and efforts to address key issues affecting schools and help children overcome the opportunity gap. While educators are searching for non-traditional methods to increase student achievement, each of the organizations offers resources and initiatives critical to the success of students. They are provided by many different community organizations; however, efforts could be more effective if coordinated and all working on a shared agenda. To achieve systemic change, collective impact is designed to align resources and unify agendas of multiple organizations to solve these social-educational issues. 

Large-scale social change comes from better cross-sector coordination rather than from the isolated intervention of individual organizations. Nonprofits and funders often overlook the potential for collective impact because they are accustomed to focusing on independent action as the primary vehicle for social change. Isolated impact is the approach often used, which is oriented toward finding and funding a solution from a single organization. However, the complex nature of most social problems makes it difficult for just one organization to create lasting large-scale change. 

Organizations that want to engage or are already engaging in collective impact know they must understand the infrastructure of a collective impact initiative and take advantage of the framework set up to address adaptive problems and create the greatest possible change. Building a common community agenda, and constantly revisiting that agenda, is fundamental to all community change requiring a collective impact and being committed to change by bringing organizational assets and individual talents collectively together in order for the whole to be greater than its individual parts. 

Throughout the Valley, many companies and organizations are ahead of the curve and have designed their CSR and ESG efforts using a collective impact model. Valley of the Sun United Way, for example, has been using this approach for nearly two decades, but many other companies and organizations are poised to have the same collective impact. Many national networks offer workshops, seminars and conferences to further develop the understanding of collective impact, and many of these organizations have detailed websites with toolkits available and navigators assigned to support initiatives.  

Ryan Narramore contributed to this article.

5 Steps for Building a Common Agenda

  1. Form a team that will work together for 12–18 months and are tasked to own the common agenda and shared measurement of the collective impact work.
  2. Identify and bring together the top 100 people from the community, nonprofit, business and government sectors, as well as people with lived experience, critical to the success of the collective impact work.
  3. Implement a broad-based community engagement strategy in order to hear community needs. 
  4. Develop short-term action teams (mandates of no more than six months) in order to implement early win strategies.
  5. Write a common agenda and shared measurement strategy. Present the plan and solicit partnerships with the top 100 people and organizations.

Source: Tamarack Institute

Melissa L. Boydston, Ed.D., is the senior vice president of community development and engagement at Valley of the Sun United Way. VSUW envisions a community where every child, family and individual is healthy; has a safe place to live; and has every opportunity to succeed in school, in life and in work. As we work with our community, corporate and nonprofit partners to implement MC2026, our five-year plan for Mighty Change, we will put all of our efforts toward reaching bold goals for Maricopa County in health, housing and homelessness, education and workforce development.

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