Collective impact and community engagement

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

Kania and Kramer 1 argue that collective impact involves “the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors.” There can be a great deal of variation in how these “important actors” are defined and identified. Some collective impact initiatives are quite top down with a focus on government agencies and professional community services rather than adopting a more bottom up approach that starts with community members.

As a range of authors and practitioners have argued, community engagement needs to be at the heart of collective impact 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Wolff 8 argues that collective impact emerged from a “top-down business consulting experience and is thus not a community development model” and does not necessarily “set a priority of engaging those most affected by the issue in their collaborative impact processes” (p. 3). While this may be the case, collective impact initiatives can, and I argue should, effectively engage the community and ensure that those who are most affected by the change are involved from the start. The following provides an overview of ways in which collective impact can have a greater focus on community engagement.

Rethinking the 5 conditions of collective impact

Cabaj and Weaver 2, 9 propose changes to the leadership paradigm underpinning collective impact and the five conditions, that place community engagement at the heart of collective impact.

The start by arguing that the approach to leadership (or the leadership paradigm) should change from “management” (which they suggest is the current approach) to “movement building,” and that this requires a fundamental shift in the way in which many collective impact initiatives are managed. According to Cabaj and Weaver 2:

In a management approach, the leaders of institutions responsible for a domain—such as health, education, or criminal justice—come together to find ways to get better outcomes than they might achieve independently. While they may consult with the broader community on the nature of the problem and how it might be addressed, they perceive themselves to be primarily responsible for developing and implementing new responses to an issue. As a result, CI [collective impact] participants employing a managerial approach typically (but not always) focus on improving existing systems through such measures as data-sharing, coordination of services, and joint action on policy or regulation barriers. (pp. 3-4)

In contrast, in a movement building approach”

The emphasis is on reforming (even transforming) systems where improvements alone will not make a difference. Movement-building leaders bring together a diverse group of stakeholders, including those not in traditional institutions or seats of power, to build a vision of the future based on common values and narratives. Movements “open up peoples’ hearts and minds to new possibilities,” “create the receptive climate for new ideas to take hold,” and “embolden policymakers” and system leaders. Movements change the ground on which everyday political life and management occur. (p.4)

Movement building relies on community engagement and is much more consistent with many of the themes in this blog such as bottom up community development, shared power and principled community engagement. In order to promote movement building, they argue that the five conditions of collective impact (discussed in the previous blog) should be revised in order to increase community engagement and to learn from bottom-up change movements. The changes they promote in Collective impact 3.0 2, 9 are as follows:

1. Move from continuous communication to authentic community engagement

Authentic community engagement places the community at the centre of the change process and ensures that those most affected by the change are involved from the start. The experience and insights of people with lived experience are vital if we are to promote equity and to ensure that those who are impacted by an issue can fully participate in creating change. Community engagement needs to involve active, meaningful participation and not simply consulting community leaders. (E.g., there should be an emphasis on strategies that encourage the Collaborate and Empower levels of the Spectrum of Public Participation.) As I will argue in a coming post, strengths-based approaches, which are community led and build on the existing community strengths, can help promote authentic community engagement.

2. Move from a common agenda to shared aspirations

The outcomes forming a common agenda need to be based on community aspirations that are ambitious enough to mean they cannot be realised through business as usual. Business as usual is not going to create the change needed to address complex problems and so collective impact need to be working towards fundamental change. At the same time, if a collective impact initiative creates outcomes and a common agenda that are not consistent with community aspirations and priorities, the initiative is likely to fail. Initiatives, thus need to have a foundation built on community values, interests and positions. In doing so it is important to recognise the communities are not homogeneous nor conflict free, but encompass diversity, competing interest and priorities, and unequal access to resources and influence. If initiatives are to promote equity and social justice, they have to ensure marginalised sections of the community have a voice at the table, and receive the support and resources they need to influence planning and decisions. Cabaj and Weaver talk about creating a “big tent” that allows for differing—or even competing—interests and priorities, and allow participants to “pursue the interdependent challenges underlying tough issues” (p. 6).

3. Move from shared measurement to strategic learning

By having a foundation of strategic learning, collective impact initiatives can reflect on their work, learn from what they observe, and adapt their approach based on what they are discovering. While shared measurement is an important, it needs to be one part of a larger system of learning and evaluation. Cabaj and Weaver argue that collective impact initiatives sometime “rush right into shared measurement” before they have laid the foundations strategic learning. They suggest 2 measurement systems need to:

(a) provide real-time feedback on the multiple outcomes expressed in their theory of change or strategy; (b) are manageable; (c) have robust processes for sense-making and decision-making; and (d) can co-evolve with their ever-changing strategies. (pp. 7-8)

4. Move from mutually reinforcing activities to high leverage activities

Cabaj and Weaver2 suggest that a focus on mutually reinforcing activities can “unintentionally encourage CI participants to focus on areas that offer great opportunities for cooperation rather than the greatest opportunities for results” (p. 8). Collective impact initiatives that need to focus on high leverage activities that can make the biggest difference (regardless of whether they are collaborative or independent). While cooperation and collaboration are important and valuable, they are not the main aim of collective impact, and should be seen as strategies that can help create change. At times it may be more valuable for participants to pursue independent (even competing) activities.

5. Move from backbone organisation to containers for change

A focus on backbone organisations has led to “a much better understanding of the infrastructure required for community change.” 2, p. 10, but there is risk that it can also lead to more top-down approaches, a sense that ownership or responsibility lies with the backbone organisation rather than the community, and the unnecessary establishment of new legal bodies to act as a backbone organisation (rather than supporting existing players to take on the role). Backbone organisations need to create a trusting, cooperative environment that promotes diversity, challenging conversations and innovation. Their focus needs to be on creating a container for change (e.g,, community support, willingness to change, high levels of trust and empathy, the ability to have challenging conversations) rather than adopting an management approach (discussed above).

The updated five conditions can be presented as follows.

Although some of these changes are minor, others are quite significant and all of them “broaden the original elements laid out in Kania and Kramer’s 2011 article” 2, p. 33 and prioritise processes the promote community engagement and long term change.

Building community support for collective impact

Barnes and Schmitz 5 also argue that community engagement needs to be at the heart of data-driven approaches like collective impact. They believe that such approaches will:

Be feasible and sustainable only if leaders create and implement those solutions with the active participation of people in the communities that they target.

They go on to suggest six factors that help build community support for collective impact and other data-driven approaches, some of which have similarities to the revised five conditions of collective impact:

  1. Organising ownership: Rather than engaging that community after leaders have designed and launched a collective impact initiative, engagement should commence much earlier so that community members “will have an incentive to support the initiative” (p. 35) and to help ensure that community members are involved from the start.
  2. Allowing for complexity: Rather than adopting a simplistic ‘plug and play” solution in which evidence-based programs are introduced without paying close attention to the complex cultural context, collective impact initiatives need to “develop a deep connection to the communities they serve and a deep understanding of the many constituencies that can affect the success of their efforts” (p. 36). They need to ensure that each intervention is connected to, and complements, other interventions, organisations and processes already in the community.
  3. Working with local institutions: One of the reasons for a focus on shared measurement is to ensure that interventions are having an impact. The increasing emphasis on evidence-based programs means there is an incentive to bring in programs or services with a proven track record from outside the community. This can mean that existing organisations with close connections to, and a deep understanding of, the community lose funding. Barnes and Schmitz suggest it is often better to work with existing organisations to help them measure the impact of their work and to adopt successful practices.
  4. Applying an equity lens: Particularly when working with marginalised communities or marginalised sections of communities, it is important that people from the communities are involved from the start. Because communities are not homogeneous there are often competing agendas, and different sections of the communities can have different perspectives and priorities. It is thus important that community members should not only be “at the table’; they should also be in positions of leadership for the initiative. It isn’t enough to consider equity issues in terms of the outcomes; we also need to consider equity in how we engage community leaders, how we build trust amongst participants and how will encourage an inclusive, collaborative culture in the collective impact initiative. 
  5. Building momentum: Engaging communities takes time and it can easily take one or two years to complete the core planning and relationship building before the initiative can get off the ground. Long term commitment is thus needed because change takes time. It can help engage community members, however, if it is possible to get some early runs on the board (or quick wins) to build momentum and demonstrate the potential of the initiative.
  6. Managing constituencies through change: Collective approach requires significant changes to practice and it is important that organisations and practitioners are supported through this change. Particularly if there is a focus on community engagement, services may need to change how they work with communities.

Nothing about us without us

Those who are most affected by an issue should have the opportunity to be fully involved in attempts to create change. As Dan Duncan 7 argues

When we talk about collective impact and community-led strategies we must be clear that the foundation of effective collective impact must be based on a racial equity and inclusion lens to make sure no one is left behind. (p. 2)

Equity and social just rely on community engagement. As has been emphasised, it is not enough to engage the community once priorities have been set and planning has commenced: they need to be engaged from the start. Communities should be the subjects of collective impact (i.e., are the ones doing something) rather than the objects (i.e., having something done to them). By focusing on community engagement throughout the process, communities can be supported to build on their strengths and to help drive change that is important to them.

In the next blog post I will explore the importance of strengths-based approaches to collective impact and how these can help promote community engagement.    

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

  1. What is collective impact?
  2. A strengths-based approach to collective impact
  3. An introduction to community engagement
  4. 10 things I’ve learnt about strengths-based community engagement
  5. 4 types of power: What are power over; power with; power to and power within?
  6. Power and strengths-based practice

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. Kania, J., & Kramer, M. (2011). Collective impact. Stanford Social Innovation Review, 9, 36-41. Available from  
  2. Cabaj, M., & Weaver, L. (2016). Collective impact 3.0: An evolving framework for community change: Tamarack Institute. Available from
  3. Smart, J. (2017). Collective impact: Evidence and implications for practice. Melbourne: Australian Institute of Family Studies. Available from
  4. Wolff, T., Minkler, M., Wolfe, S. M., Berkowitz, B., Bowen, L., Butterfoss, F. D., . . . Lee, K. S. (2016). Collaborating for equity and justice: Moving beyond collective impact. Nonprofit Quaterly, 2016(Winter). Available from:
  5. Barnes, M., & Schmitz, P. (2016). Community engagement matters (now more than ever). Stanford Social Innovation Review(Spring), 32-39. Available from
  6. 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
  7. Duncan, D. (2016). The components of effective collective impact. Rockville, MD: Clear Impact. Available from   
  8. Wolff, T. (2016). Ten places where collective impact gets it wrong. Global Journal of Community Psychology Practice, 7(1), 1-13. Available from
  9. Weaver, L., & Cabaj, M. (2016). Collective impact 3.0 [webinar]. Tamarack Institute. Available from:

About Graeme Stuart

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

6 Responses to Collective impact and community engagement

  1. Eric Smith says:

    Thanks, Graeme! As with Tamela and Colin, I really appreciate this useful lens. I also see where Tamarak Institute’s vibrant community effort is producing some interesting results by emphasising the meaningful inclusion of folks with lived/living experience in collective impact approaches. Keep up the good work, Grameme.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Tamela Milan-Alexander says:

    I provide community engagement on the Westside of Chicago and use Collective Impact and this revised lens was just what I needed to read. Thank You

    Liked by 1 person

  3. colin Hopkirk says:

    Thanks again Graeme, another really useful post, lots to reflect on and will be sharing with our community of practice here.

    Liked by 1 person

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