Jeff Edmondson: Why collective impact is much more than collaboration

There is momentum building among influential commentators to call out the power of communities coming together to address complex social problems.

New York Times columnist David Brooks is heralding the extraordinary value of this approach. James and Deb Fallows published Our Towns, telling the stories of the people and communities they have met who are finding practical solutions to local problems.

A decade ago, this work was christened collective impact. The renewed attention is super exciting, but it also calls to mind how easy it is to confuse collective impact with mere collaboration, which focuses primarily on people coming together and talking.

Collective impact means that partners start by agreeing on outcomes and establishing shared and reasonable time-bound goals. They use data to identify what is already working and keep using data to continually improve it. The whole process builds trust within the community, and hope that even the most complex challenges, from homelessness to high school dropout rates, can be solved.

(Unfortunately, the term “collective impact” has become so watered down that it’s probably time for new language, but that’s a topic for another day.)

So I’m dusting off a blog I wrote during my time as executive director of StriveTogether that lays out the distinction between collaboration and collective impact and still holds true today. In short:

Collaboration

  • Convene around programs or initiatives

  • Evaluation based on randomized control trials

  • An addition to what you do

  • Advocate for ideas

Collective Impact

  • Work together to move outcomes

  • Evaluation through continuous improvement

  • Core to what you do

  • Advocate for what works

In my new role as executive director of community mobilization at Ballmer Group, I will oversee our support of community-based work in our priority regions and across the country. I look forward to working with partners to drive a national movement to develop and amplify best practices for achieving collective impact.

And who knows - a decade in, we may even come up with a new name.