Urgent, complex challenges affect children across Indiana, including high infant mortality rates, persistent achievement gaps, and the soaring impact of parental opioid use. There are successful prevention and intervention programs operated by youth-serving organizations throughout the state, many of which engage government, philanthropic and corporate partners. The complexity of many social problems, such as preparing all children for success beyond high school, calls for shared community investments of time and treasure that are beyond the scope of any single sector. Solving these complex problems will require expansion of partnerships and collaborations and reduction of siloed services. A growing body of evidence shows the key to lasting improvements in the well-being of Indiana children will be the proliferation of prolonged cross-sector partnerships.
The collective impact approach holds potential for tackling large-scale social problems. First defined by the Stanford Social Innovation Review in 2011, this framework brings together multi-sector stakeholders with a shared desire to address a large-scale social problem. It has been received with enthusiasm and widespread, rapid adoption. But with implementation and effectiveness varying greatly across initiatives, many question whether “collective impact” is simply a trendy update to the term “collaboration.” David Shapiro, CEO of MENTOR, notes, “Once something gets popularized and trendy, it also gets watered down and given a million meanings.”
The collective impact framework offers a fundamentally different approach based on discipline, high performance and constant adaptability. Stanford’s model outlines five key conditions that differentiate the approach from other collaborations or partnerships: a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and the presence of a backbone organization.
Experts stress that three conditions must be in place before launching a collective impact initiative: an influential area champion, adequate financial resources and a sense of urgency for change. There must also be a core understanding that collective impact work takes time, patience and financial resources. Having worked with successful collective impact initiatives centered on youth mentoring, Shapiro stresses the importance of coming together around a critical issue. He states, “We are all trying to solve very hard problems. No one is saying that you are failing because you haven’t solved them the way that you’ve been trying to solve them. We’re just trying to figure out if there are new ways to continue to push on the solutions together.”
Promise Indiana, a nonprofit based out of Wabash, functions as the backbone organization for community-driven efforts to instill the hope, culture and habits needed to create pathways for all children to go to college. This initiative engages many sector partners including: government, nonprofits, schools, higher education institutions, community foundations, businesses, philanthropic partners and individual donors. In fact, the community applies to the program as a unit. Clint Kugler, Promise Indiana’s founder, explains that the program succeeds by “connecting current systems and creating a network of community champions.” To date, 17 Indiana communities have committed to this collective impact project, with several more planned to join in 2018.
Policymakers and funders can support increased impact by encouraging a collective impact approach to large-scale social issues. Stakeholders from all sectors must be invited to the table, and they must arrive with a learning mindset and a willingness to compromise in service of the overarching goal. The best collective impact initiatives include space to customize for local context. In addition to leaders from the public and private sectors, it is important to engage individuals who are directly impacted by the issue being addressed, those with the lived experience. As individual community members, we can all attend school board meetings, city council meetings and community gatherings to offer our perspectives and generate that critical, shared sense of urgency.
Collective impact is not simply a new buzzword to describe collaborations and partnerships of all types. Instead, if implemented with intention, the framework holds potential to create lasting change. Leaders are recognizing that solving complex social problems is more effective when isolated programs and interventions become systems of shared vision and coordinated effort. Collective impact work is time-intensive, messy and sometimes uncomfortable. Yet when we are talking about the well-being of our future workforce and leaders – our kids – collective impact is also an approach that can provide the insights, connections, energy and optimism needed to tackle our biggest challenges.