What is collective impact?

A word cloud based on collective impact. Key words include collective, impact, community, change, engagement, backbone, approach and shared.
(Created with Wordle)

Collective impact is a multi-sector/multi-agency, collaborative leadership approach 1 to large scale social change in communities 2 that is usually place based 3 (i.e., it is focused on a particular town, neighbourhood or community). In simple terms, collective impact aims to get the community, local organisations and external agencies (e.g., government departments) to work together to address an agreed priority. Proponents of the approach argue that the five conditions of collective impact (discussed in more detail below) elevate it above simple cooperation and collaboration.

According to John Kania and Mark Kramer, 2 who proposed the approach in 2011 in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, collective impact involves “the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem” (p. 36) and that it is “distinctly different” (p. 36) because it also involves “a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants” (p. 38).

Collective Impact Australia (quoted in Howard4) described collective impact as

A framework for facilitating and achieving large scale social change. It is a structured and disciplined approach to bringing cross-sector organisations together to focus on a common agenda that results in long-lasting change. (p. 18)

Dawn O’Neil and Kerry Graham 5 suggest that:

The Collective Impact approach is premised on the belief that no single policy, government department, organisation or program can tackle or solve the increasingly complex social problems we face as a society.  The approach calls for multiple organisations or entities from different sectors to abandon their own agenda in favour of a common agenda, shared measurement and alignment of effort.  Unlike collaboration or partnership, Collective Impact initiatives have centralised infrastructure—known as a backbone organisation—with dedicated staff whose role is to help participating organisations shift from acting alone to acting in concert. (para. 10)

Collective impact is often describes as a data-driven approach 3, 6, 7 because of its focus on shared measurement and the way in which “data plays an essential role in understanding the social issue and in monitoring the outcomes of interventions.” 3, p. 17

For resources on collective impact see the Collective Impact Forum.

Five conditions of collective impact 

As alluded to above, Kania and Kramer 2, 8, 9 identify five conditions which they argue set it apart from other approaches:

Common Agenda All participants have a shared vision for change including a common understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving it through agreed upon actions.

Shared Measurement Collecting data and measuring results consistently across all participants ensures efforts remain aligned and participants hold each other accountable.

Mutually Reinforcing Activities Participant activities must be differentiated while still being coordinated through a mutually reinforcing plan of action.

Continuous Communication Consistent and open communication is needed across the many players to build trust, assure mutual objectives, and create common motivation.

Backbone Support Creating and managing collective impact requires a separate organization(s) with staff and a specific set of skills to serve as the backbone for the entire initiative and coordinate participating organizations and agencies. (p. 1)

Drawing on Kania and Kramer 2, 8, 9 and Smart 3 we can also describe the five conditions, in a more graphic format, as follows.

A figure showing the five conditions of collective impact with a brief description of each.

A video introduction community engagement

The following video, by the Collective Impact Forum, provides a brief overview, including the five conditions of collective.

The rise of collective impact and some criticisms

Since first being promoted by Kania and Kramer there has been a significant uptake of the approach, particularly by governments and philanthropic foundations. It is attractive because, as Weaver 10 suggests, it provides “simple rules for complex interventions” (p. 16) and its approach is intuitive. Smart 3 suggests that collective impact resonated in Australia (which, after North America, has the largest uptake of collective impact), leading to a rapid adoption of the approach:

Collaborative networks and alliances recognised themselves and their work in the description and the five conditions outlined by Kania and Kramer (2011), resulting in a proliferation of Australian collective impact initiatives that either began in response to the framework or applied the framework retrospectively to their work (p. 5).

Collective impact was recognisable to many practitioners because it has many similarities to existing approaches. (See for example Lisbeth Schorr11, Tim Moore and Rebecca Fry12, Nashira Baril and her colleagues13 and Results-Based Accountability.) Some of the concerns about collective impact (especially how it was first introduced) are based on the belief that it did not learn enough from existing collaborative approaches to addressing complex social problems. Significant criticisms of collective impact include that it does not place enough emphasis on:

  1. Equity, particularly structural inequalities. 3, 14, 15
  2. Policy and system change 3, 15, 16
  3. Existing research and models of practice 3, 14, 15
  4. Community engagement 3, 4, 15, 16, 17
  5. Strengths-based approaches 4, 18

These criticisms can be addressed if initiatives make addressing them a priority. Given the focus of this blog, I will discuss the last two issues in more detail in coming posts:

  1. Collective impact and community engagement
  2. Strengths-based approaches to collective impact

If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:

  1. What is collective impact?
  2. Collective impact and community engagement
  3. A strengths-based approach to collective impact
  4. Bottom-up community development
  5. What are complex problems?
  6. More posts in the What is…? series (Key concepts related to working with families and communities)

If you find any problems with the blog, (e.g., broken links or typos) I’d love to hear about them. You can either add a comment below or contact me via the Contact page.


  1. Henig, J. R., Riehl, C. J., Houston, D. M., Rebell, M. A., & Wolff, J. R. (2016). Collective impact and the new generation of cross-sector collaborations for education: A nationwide scan. New York: The Wallace Foundation. Available from https://www.wallacefoundation.org/knowledge-center/Documents/Collective-Impact-and-the-New-Generation-of-Cross-Sector-Collaboration-for-Education.pdf
  2. Kania, J., & Kramer, M. (2011). Collective impact. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 9, 36-41. Available from https://ssir.org/images/articles/2011_WI_Feature_Kania.pdf
  3. Smart, J. (2017). Collective impact: Evidence and implications for practice. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Available from https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/sites/default/files/publication-documents/45_collective_impact_in_australia.pdf
  4. Howard, A. (2018). How can collective action be strengths based and community led? Paper presented at the Family and community strengths international symposium, Newcastle, Australia. Available from https://www.newcastle.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0006/455865/Symposium-Presentation-Booklet-FINAL-003.pdf
  5. O’Neil, D., & Graham, K. (2013). How collective impact can help place based policies. Probono Australia. Available from: https://probonoaustralia.com.au/news/2013/11/how-collective-impact-can-help-place-based-policies/
  6. Kania, J., Hanleybrown, F., & Splansky Juster, J. (2014). Essential mindset shifts for collective impact. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 12(4, supplement), 2-5. Available from http://www.collectiveimpactforum.org/sites/default/files/Essential_Mindset_Shifts_for_Collective_Impact.pdf
  7. Thomas, S. (2013). From information into action: Using data to drive collective impact. FSG. Available from: https://www.fsg.org/blog/information-action-using-data-drive-collective-impact
  8. Kania, J., & Kramer, M. (2013). Embracing emergence: How collective impact addresses complexity. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Available from: https://ssir.org/pdf/Embracing_Emergence_PDF.pdf
  9. Hanleybrown, F., Kania, J., & Kramer, M. (2012). Channeling change: Making collective impact work. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Available from: https://ssir.org/pdf/Channeling_Change_PDF.pdf
  10. Weaver, L. (2014). The promise and peril of collective impact. The Philanthropist, 26(1), 11-19. Available from https://www.collectiveimpactforum.org/sites/default/files/1-The%20Promise%20and%20Peril%20of%20Collective%20Impact.pdf
  11. Schorr, L. B. (2008). Taking bold steps for children in Santa Clara County: Keynote address. Paper presented at the Santa Clara County Children’s Summit, Santa Clara.  Available from http://storage.ugal.com/3283/lisbethschorrkeynotejan3108final.pdf
  12. Moore, T., & Fry, R. (2011). Place-based approaches to child and family services: A literature review. Parkville, Victoria: The Royal Children’s Hospital Centre for Community Child. Available from http://www.rch.org.au/uploadedFiles/Main/Content/ccch/Place_based_services_literature_review.pdf
  13. Baril, N., Patterson, M., Boen, C., Gowler, R., & Norman, N. (2011). Building a regional health equity movement: The grantmaking model of a local health department. Family & Community Health, 34(Supplement 1), S23-S43.
  14. Wolff, T. (2016). Ten places where collective impact gets it wrong. Global Journal of Community Psychology Practice, 7(1), 1-13. Available from https://www.gjcpp.org/pdfs/Tom%20Wolff%20Collective%20Impact%20critique-CopyeditFINAL.pdf
  15. Wolff, T., Minkler, M., Wolfe, S. M., Berkowitz, B., Bowen, L., Butterfoss, F. D., . . . Lee, K. S. (2017). Collaborating for equity and justice: Moving beyond collective impact. Nonprofit Quaterly, 2016(Winter). Available from: https://charterforcompassion.org/images/menus/communities/pdfs/2304_Wolff-Jan-NPQ-with-credits.pdf
  16. Cabaj, M., & Weaver, L. (2016). Collective impact 3.0: An evolving framework for community change: Tamarack Institute. Available from http://cdn2.hubspot.net/hubfs/316071/Events/CCI/2016_CCI_Toronto/CCI_Publications/Collective_Impact_3.0_FINAL_PDF.pdf?t=1472581825369
  17. Barnes, M., & Schmitz, P. (2016). Community engagement matters (now more than ever). Stanford Social Innovation Review(Spring), 32-39. Available from https://ssir.org/articles/entry/community_engagement_matters_now_more_than_ever
  18. Duncan, D. (2016). The components of effective collective impact. Rockville, MD: Clear Impact. Available from https://clearimpact.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/The-Components-of-Effective-Collective-Impact.pdf   

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), environmentalist, Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
This entry was posted in Working with communities and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What is collective impact?

  1. Peter says:

    we did the majority of the above during the 1990 to 2014 as one of 5 government funded Housing Action Trusts ours being Waltham Forest HAT addressing the issues of 4 inner city high rise estates with all the inherent problems including anti-social behavior drugs etc in East London it was a great bottom up org resident first/led but they must be involved at Board level coming through from local estate committees
    we went through the whole spectrum of redevelopment New build demolition of tower blocks and community development when the 10 year life of the WFHAT came to an end the residents were ask to chose whether they went back to the LA or another org we chose to form our won HA of which I became an elected chair however the HC wanted an established HA to act as an umbrella org and offered us Guinness Trust and Peabody trust to manage the housing stock and ORegen to manage the Community dev we choose Peabody
    all went well until a change of CEO at Oregen decided to expand,Note I was a trustee so had good knowledge however the CEOs plans eventually ended in ORegen going into receivership
    Then after 20 years of a very successful HA named CBHA Community Based Housing Assc winning many accolades and awards the umbrella company Peabody trust did what they promised never to do they dissolved our HA and swallowed it into theirs
    over 30 years of voluntary work by many people residents etc was lost we were an org representing 2,000 homes now we are in the 70,00 precisely what we didn’t want to be if we did we would have gone back to the council in 2004
    so whatever you do ensure nobody else can take it away.


    • Hi Peter, Sorry to hear about your experience. In my next post I talk about collective impact and community engagement, and then in a coming post I’m going to discuss strengths-based approaches to collective impact. Without these two elements, I think the sort of thing you are talking about is more likely. Graeme


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