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Why collective impact is the future of systemic change

May 17, 2023
A group of young businesspeople sit around a boardroom table with their hands together as they take part in collective impact.

When tackling complex, multifaceted social issues, such as homelessness, poverty, or access to education, traditional approaches may not be enough. Collective impact is an innovative solution that aims to enact significant social change through cross-sector partnerships between nonprofit organizations, government agencies, foundations, and corporations. 

To provide a clear picture of how collective impact is molding the future of philanthropy, we’ll revisit the definition of collective impact, identify the conditions necessary for its successful real-world execution, and examine how collective impact is applied to the goal of achieving health equity. 

Understanding collective impact

Collective impact is an intentional way of working with multiple cross-sector stakeholders on common outcomes. It follows a framework of five key elements that work together to achieve deeper social impact:

  1. A common agenda: All stakeholders must agree that there is a problem and decide on a solution. For instance, in a small town facing increasing rates of youth homelessness, representatives from local government, community organizations, and religious institutions might come together to create an outreach program that strives to educate, serve, and protect those living on the streets.
  2. Shared measurement: Collecting and analyzing data in a standardized way is essential to track progress and ensure mutual accountability. Using the example above, the partners might track data related to the number of homeless youth served, the length of time it takes to move homeless youth to permanent housing, and the success rate of young people who complete supportive programs.
  3. Mutually reinforcing activities: All partners must undertake activities that support the overall vision and complement each other. For example, the religious institution could leverage its facilities to provide temporary shelter for young people, the community organization could provide outreach and referral services, and the local government could allocate funding for housing and support services.
  4. Continuous communication: Open communication among partners and with the broader community is necessary to build trust and establish common ground. This could include regular check-ins, shared progress reports, and meetings convened with various stakeholders.
  5. Outside support: A separate organization should provide ongoing support to the collaboration, including facilitation, coordination, and capacity-building. For example, the partners might work with grantmakers to advocate for an increase in funding. 

By adopting these principles and working within a diverse group of cross-sector partners, organizations can achieve greater impact than they would working alone.

Collective impact as the future of social change

The collective impact model is gaining popularity as a strategy for addressing complex social problems, and for good reason. Bringing together stakeholders from across sectors allows for a more comprehensive and multi-dimensional approach that tackles the root causes of social issues, rather than just treating the symptoms. 

As more organizations and communities embrace this model, we can expect to see lasting and sustainable solutions to complex problems, making collective impact the future of systemic social change.

Applying the collective impact model to health equity

The healthcare industry is a prime example of how using the collective impact model not only makes sense but has the robust framework to implement large-scale change. 

Health equity is an exceptionally complex and multi-faceted issue because it’s influenced by a broad array of social, economic, and environmental factors that extend beyond healthcare access. As a result, organizations from multiple sectors must work in tandem, sharing how their organization’s purpose and work are part of the chain of healthcare access. It’s also imperative that they align their efforts around strengthening shared outcomes aimed at improved health equity. 

Bringing together 20 to 40 organizational partners to work over the course of at least three to five years is the level of collective work that is required to strengthen health equity in one community. Stakeholders that need to be involved include: 

  • Health clinics
  • Coordinated transportation
  • Prevention services
  • Follow-up support
  • Patient education
  • Access to psychiatric care
  • Family health programming

Each party has a vital role to play and needs the support and services provided by other organizations and agencies to successfully improve health equity.

Organizations outside of the healthcare industry can adopt a similar approach to addressing change within their respective fields. Making meaningful progress toward any type of inequity demands a sustained and committed effort to collaboration.

A final note about collective impact

Collective impact isn’t simple, but neither are the inequities that your organization is trying to solve. To get started, connect with thought leaders across various fields and collaborate on a shared vision for your community. Whether you’re a seasoned nonprofit leader, emerging healthcare worker, or passionate grant writer, taking a holistic and collaborative approach to your work will help you make long-term change. 

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