We kick off our blog with a post from Dr. Paul Evensen, Senior Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Wyman Center. In this role he serves as the Founder of the Social Innovation District, which uses a collective impact approach to build the capacity of the region’s social sector at three levels – program, organization, and partnerships.  Aside from asking and answering big questions about the social sector in St. Louis, Paul also spends lots of time training his new rescue dog, Charlie, to not eat the couch. 

Whence the Haters?

Why Collective Impact is being actively dismissed and why it matters.

by Dr. Paul Evensen, guest blogger

I recently attended a major national convention on the use of data to improve community outcomes. I expected some isolated skeptics of collective impact and even more attendees who simply were not familiar with key elements of the collective impact conversation. I was shocked by what I actually heard.

I encountered strong and heated opposition. I even sat through sessions filled with anti-collective impact vitriol. This dissent was not isolated. It was widely expressed across the convention and voiced by leading practitioners and researchers – people whose work is on my shelf, whose lessons learned guide my daily practice as a coalition director, and whose careers I have followed with respect for decades.

I was set on my heels. Why the pushback? What were the specific concerns? Where did the vehement opposition originate? After some reflection I can identify four themes from the conversations:

  • There is nothing new here. Many colleagues described collective impact as simply good marketing for old ideas and predicted it will all be passé in a very short while.
  • Where have they been? A genuine feeling that new comers to community development and collaboration were acting like they invented an idea and a field of practice that is actually longstanding. This included a fair amount of “Who the hell do they think they are anyway?”
  • There is no evidence. A companion to “Where have they been?” was a recurring frustration with the disconnection between collective impact and the research and data that are available to inform the conversation.
  • The model is incomplete (to a degree that is ethically culpable). Some attendees granted that there may be good ideas in collective impact but they are inadequate to fully inform community action. In fact, they are so inadequate that the collective impact conversation is doing active doing harm to many local community efforts.

These concerns are in part legitimate. I will not offer a complete apologia for collective impact – but I do want to push the conversation to a more productive space. Who has been exploring the ideas and themes of collective impact before John Kania gave it a snappy name [1]? The answer matters because this is the chief source of all four complaints.

Public Health. Since the 1960’s the field of public health has been pioneering cross-sector, cross-system collaborations to change the conditions that lead to health and well-being. From Pekka Puska’s work in Finland [2] (adding nearly 10 years of life expectancy to every person in North Karalia) to Hal Holder’s clear demonstration of population-level outcomes with Communities Mobilizing for Change on Alcohol [3] there is a vibrant field of practice and research with proven outcomes. Public health has argued for more than forty years that a cross-system collaborative approach is required and that these coalitions must implement multiple, mutually reinforcing strategies. Sound familiar?

Not just cross-system partnership structures and mutually reinforcing activities but also complexity theory and systems thinking have been actively explored in the public health arena since at least the early 1990’s. For example, Bobby Milstein pushed this frontier from several desks at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention culminating in a special issue of the American Journal of Public Health devoted to the topic [4]. I can recall conversations in 1996 with Bobby that pressed on all five characteristics of complex and adaptive systems – not just emergence. Sound familiar?

Community Psychology. By and large public health brought us partnerships and the application of complexity theory to population outcomes, but it is to community psychology’s doorstep we should lay credit for both specifying the steps partnerships must take in order to reach their population goals and the conditions under which they are likely to succeed (i.e. the five conditions).  One doesn’t have to look far to find the “under the hood” details required to operate a cross-sector partnership.

The on-line Community Tool Box has more than 30,000 unique visitors a day, is available in multiple languages, and is used by millions worldwide. Note specifically that the Tool Box outlines the evidence-based essential processes [5] partnerships should take and turns these into easy-to-use how-to guides, downloadable PowerPoints, and planning tools [6].

If a single “bible” for implementing collective impact exists it is probably Fran Butterfoss’s seminal Coalitions and Partnerships in Community Health [7]. The history, practice, and art of community organizing are clearly spelled out and understandably it takes 577 pages to do so. Sound familiar? Wait, this is the detailed part not included in the typical conversations about collective impact but eagerly sought after by community leaders trying to make it happen. So this part probably doesn’t sound so familiar.

Back to those pesky five conditions for collective impact. Each of them has a research base and much of that research comes from the work of community psychologists. The need for backbone support? Larry Green has brought this up many times [8]. The clarity and feedback loop that a common agenda and shared measurement make possible? Look no further than the work of Abe Wandersman or Steve Fawcett [9]. Just how one can assess the collective impact of mutually reinforcing activities is a persistent thread in the field of community psychology and recent approaches are quite promising [10]. In other words, one need look no further or harder than the first page of Google Scholar results to find the five conditions clearly identified and a broad research base for their importance clearly established (and all more than a decade ago).

I am going to stop naming who has been exploring the ideas and themes of collective impact before John Kania gave it a snappy name. There is more – much more. But the point has been made. The core of collective impact – namely the five conditions, the backbone support functions, the notion of complexity, how and why emergence is key, and even systems thinking and leadership are not new.

We do a disservice to all when we claim such. We alienate our most experienced practitioners. We deprive ourselves of connections to needed research. We become blind to the completeness checks, crap detectors, and added detail that previous work and research provides to collective impact. We also risk losing perspective on both the message (it is not gospel) and the messenger (he did not seek sanctification and he has not laid claim to being an oracle).

But John (and I intentionally call him John because I want to invoke the familiar – we have worked together and I want to vouch for the man’s vision and role) has done us all a great service. First, he synthesized much of the research and practice into accessible, clear, and helpful language. God bless him. Have you read any of the research I cite in this blog? No wonder there is a “research to practice gap.” We need more John Kania’s!

Secondly, and maybe more importantly, he delivered this clearer and compelling message to a whole audience for whom it was new. We not only have a research to practice gap, we have a profound gap between key systems in our community and country – a gap between the research and practice traditions that were already on the collective impact path and the larger group of stakeholders who were not.

FSG, the Forum for Youth Investment, and the Collective Impact Forum are actively closing these two gaps. First, they are reaching out to the public health leaders, community psychologists, and researchers to bring these traditions and their learning into the conversation about collective impact [11]. Secondly, they are bridging those with experience in collective impact to those for whom it is entirely new.

Right now these two gaps are being closed. Right now, those who helped distill and give language to collective impact are connecting with all who have common cause, can add learning and tools, and wish to work together. I will say that there is a profound need for the proponents of collective impact to reference sources, cite research, and give more credit (even though this can gum up clear communication). Yes, that’s you FSG. Failure to do so sends the wrong message – and this is the only message many are hearing. It is unintentional but it comes across as arrogance.

But to those who know the actors it is clear that there has been no arrogance. There has been humility on their part (and on John’s part) in the face of longstanding and tough leadership questions. Questions that have over matched us all.

This is a two-way street. Meaning common cause is possible and sought with many. But some are refusing the hand of friendship extended by the collective impact community. So, maybe my more pressing question is, why would we begrudge anyone who fixes attention on these important ideas and calls more to join our cause? Can we exercise ourselves the same humility we demand of John Kania and other leaders? Are we ready to bequeath the spotlight in the name of shared purpose and real outcomes?

I think this holiday season is the right time to ask, “Can our national thought leaders, writers, and researchers live by the very partnership principles we teach communities?”

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[1] Kania, J., & Kramer, M. (2011). Collective impact. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 1(9), 36-41.

[2] Puska, P., Nissinen, A., Tuomilehto, J., Salonen, J. T., Koskela, K., McAlister, A., et al. (1985). The community-based strategy to prevent coronary heart disease: conclusions from the ten years of the North Karelia project. Annual Review of Public Health, 6(1), 147-193.

[3] Holder, H. D., Gruenewald, P. J., Ponicki, W. R., Treno, A. J., Grube, J. W., Saltz, R. F., et al. (2000). Effect of community-based interventions on high-risk drinking and alcohol-related injuries. Journal of the American Medical Association, 284(18): 2341-2347.

[4] Leischow, S.J. & Milstein, B. (2006). Systems thinking and modeling for public health practice. American Journal of Public Health, 96(3): 403–405.

[5] Holt, C. M., Fawcett, S. B., Schultz, J. A., Berkowitz, B., Wolff, T. J., & Francisco, V. T. (2013). Building community practice competencies globally through the community tool box. Global Journal of Community Psychology Practice, 4(4), 1-8.

[6] http://ctb.ku.edu accessed December 15, 2014.

[7] Butterfoss, F.D. (2007). Coalitions and partnerships in community health. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons.

[8] Green, L., Daniel, M., & Novick, L. (2001). Partnerships and coalitions for community-based research. Public Health Reports, 116(Suppl 1), 20.

[9] Fawcett, S. B., Boothroyd, R., Schultz, J. A., Francisco, V. T., Carson, V., & Bremby, R. (2003). Building capacity for participatory evaluation within community initiatives. Journal of Prevention & Intervention in the Community, 26(2), 21-36.

[10] Collie-Akers V.L., Fawcett S.B., & Schultz J.A. (2013). Measuring progress of collaborative action in a community health effort. Rev Panam Salud Publica, 34(6):422-8.

[11] Witness the new section on collective impact at the aforementioned Community Tool Box as one example. See Chapter Two, Section Five: Collective Impact at http://ctb.ku.edu/en/table-of-contents/overview/models-for-community-health-and-development/collective-impact/main.