A primer on Collective Impact

Greater progress could be made in alleviating many of our most serious and complex social problems if nonprofits, governments, businesses, and the public were brought together around a common agenda to create collective impact.

— Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR)

Table of Contents

(1) How did we get here?
(2) Reconnect with humanity
(3) Grant-funding is broken
(4) Final thoughts

How did we get here?

Many of our founding fathers were slave owners while at the same time boasting, “All men are created equal.” It is no wonder we have been plagued with the same social problems for the last few centuries. They were wrapped up with ribbons and bows and handed down to us by the people we trusted to be our leaders.

Due to the nature of this unfortunate reality, it requires a certain type of strategy if we do, in fact, want to bring relief to the populations suffering from the symptoms of social problems which have been baked into our nation’s infrastructure since 1776.

These types of systemic flaws are not fixable by one passionate person or one activist organization or one wealthy family. These problems require continuous collaboration among all stakeholders of the local community. That means the people impacted by the symptoms, the people causing them, the people with resources to help, the residents, and everyone else in between. In order to continue evolving we must continue coming together, cooperatively, as a team.

How do you think humans evolved beyond the sabertooth tiger? One man versus one tiger?

Fuck no.

You can bet your ass there was a clan of humans who figured out how they could increase their power by collaborating, planning an attack, and taking the tiger as a team without much effort.

Penguins survive the arctic weather conditions each year because they learned if they work together, stay close, and keep moving it would allow them to all stay warm and survive yet another brutal winter.


When humans are outside in the freezing cold, we often look at them with a smug expression (if we look at them at all), we may secretly criticize them, some of you may feel sorry and give them money or buy them food, but we sure as hell don’t take any responsibility for them being homeless. If anything, we blame them for their own problems.

What if penguins did that? What if penguins didn’t share? What if they didn’t care about returning the favor to their penguin friends and family after it was their turn to be in the center of the huddle? I am going to venture out on a limb here and assume that if the penguins started acting like assholes to each other there would eventually be no more penguins.
At this rate, and using the penguin theory, humans may be responsible for their own extinction — it’s just a matter of time.
You know there is a problem when birds can take better care of one another than humans.
Perhaps there is still hope.

Reconnect with Humanity

I believe in you, in us, and I am confident if we start asking ourselves tough questions about who we are, where we are going, and what our purpose on this planet is we may be able to reconnect with our humanity.

This is an important step in the process because it is through this rediscovery we are able to begin cultivating a deep sense of empathy for one another. Sometimes it is just a matter of becoming self-aware — it is not easy to be truly honest with oneself. I am so good at sabotaging myself, manipulating myself, bending the rules I set for myself, and rationalizing behavior I initially intended on avoiding. I basically do whatever the fuck I want. Becoming aware of these different parts of my personality has been a tremendous asset. The culture we are apart of allows us to behave like this. Sure, there might not be anything terribly wrong with the list of things I just mentioned. However, if you think about it for a moment, all of that drama was internalized, personal, and has nothing to do with helping other people. In fact, it has everything to do with hurting my own chances at a good life. Once I realized I spent most of my time defending my own actions to myself and rationalizing my own behavior to myself I was incredibly embarrassed — I was sitting alone in my living room, journaling, trying to figure out how to make some next important steps in my life. Everything seemed way too difficult at the time — I later found out it was because I was my own worst enemy. It would be impossible for me to think about another human and there well being because my brain was constantly polluted with bullshit.

That said, if I were to have attempted to organize stakeholders to have a collective impact on a shared problem in our community it would have likely turned out poorly. Each participant in collective impact must understand the dynamics of not only the continuous social emotional support we all provide to each other, but also can’t have their own narcissistic tendencies seeping through and fucking up the roundtables.

Long-story short, get your shit together. When you feel healthy as an individual — you’ve done your own self-assessment and are working towards the best version of yourself then the results of your collective impact efforts will reap the benefits. That means everyone benefits — not just you.

I wish that was the toughest obstacle, but there is more.

Social Sector, Nonprofits, and the Grant-funding Model is Broken

Finding resources to support collective impact efforts can be challenging. Stanford Social Innovation Review provides insight on this:

It doesn’t happen often, not because it is impossible, but because it is so rarely attempted. Funders and nonprofits alike overlook the potential for collective impact because they are used to focusing on independent action as the primary vehicle for social change.

The social sector often competes for the same pool of grant funding. Only one or a few get the chance to make an impact on a social problem that all of the organizations want to solve.

Meanwhile, the businesses pursuing short-term financial goals hardly ever run into these problems. If a business owner wants to manufacture a useless product just to make-a-buck, there are thousands of investors waiting to invest the cash.

On the other hand, if a person wants to create value to serve unmet needs in her community she better be ready to hold out her hands 24/7 begging for other people’s charity and goodwill.

The part about this that may seem contradictory is that as long as you have a website to do the begging for you…


Then you should be fine.
If you don’t have the website, though, then you will have to beg directly…

In conclusion, there is a detailed playbook with worksheets and case studies and everything else you may need to plan and implement a collective impact effort. I am working on a collective impact series of posts which I will roll out starting tomorrow. If you think you might enjoy learning more about the strategies and tactics that drive collective impact then follow me on here or twitter.

Final Thoughts

Collective Impact is a strategy for organizing cross-sector stakeholders in an effort to solve major social problems at the systemic level.
For those who adopt the principles, it becomes a way of life. If it doesn’t, then you’re not doing it right.
This is not a switch that you turn on and off at your leisure.
Check Yourself: Pay attention when your ego creeps up on you. It happens to me quite often and I won’t even realize it until I am halfway through a conversation.Equity: Everyone is on the same playing field. EVERYONE. No one person is more or less important than another. If you think you are more important than even one person in the movement you should stop showing up to the meetings because you’re jeopardizing the potential success of the collective. You should also get therapy as well.Big Picture: Approach each roundtable and discussion while keeping in mind the big picture. Don’t storm out of the room because you’re not getting your way. Grow up. Talk through the issues.

Empathy: Understand where your collaborators are coming from. Without feeling their pain and seeing each situation through their eyes you will never get beyond the initial steps of this process. It’s give and take.

You earned this right of passage by succeeding on your solo projects. However, this is no longer a one-man / one-woman show. Your solopreneurship days have come to an end. Look beyond your individual projects. They are as important as the person next to you. Without the others, you will become nothing more than what you already are.

Are you working towards a collective impact effort in your local city or neighborhood? Have you been working alone? Are you ready for something more?

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Stay tuned for my post series on collective impact this week.

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