| Follow Us: Facebook Twitter

Bright Ideas

The Power of Collective Impact

From Detroit, to Battle Creek to Holland, nonprofits, businesses, and community members are impacting social problems using a collective impact framework. 
Collective impact has been a buzzword in the nonprofit community for the last few years. Everyone is talking about it, and plenty of organizations are finding ways to bring it to bear on the problems the social sector has been trying to chip away at for decades: poverty, education, child development, and racial equity. These are big goals, the kind people talk about with their like-minded peers at conferences and meetings or after the workday is done. These are the goals that, if one organization could do it alone, would be already done.
What does collective impact really mean though? According to an article by John Kania and Mark Kramer in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (a go-to text for understanding the movement), collective impact is different from traditional collaborations or partnerships because it involves “a centralized infrastructure, a dedicated staff, and a structured process that leads to a common agenda, shared measurement, continuous communication, and mutually reinforcing activities among all participants.”
In short, breaking out of the “silos” that separate different groups and working to better the social fabric together for a common goal. Collective impact means inviting the business community to the table instead of just asking for a check and the faith community to do more than just offer an invocation at an event. It means selling reluctant partners on their shared goals and tempering the enthusiasm of others.
On the ground where the real work gets done, different organizations are interpreting the collective impact model in different ways. In Detroit, it was a push to get more students to fill out the FAFSA for college financial aid; in Lansing, it’s about improving policies that affect poor people; in Battle Creek, it’s including families in identifying solutions to the problems that affect them; and in Holland, it’s an all-hands effort to have every child ready for school by age five.
Each group is moving the needle on some of these complex problems, although they face challenges like making sure people focus on, as Dan Varner, CEO of Excellent Schools Detroit says, “contribution as opposed to attribution.”

Excellent Schools Detroit was the lead organization in the FAFSA effort, which was phenomenally successful. It raised FAFSA completion rates to 73 percent in just a year, from around 50 percent the year prior, employing collective impact values such as constant communication and sharing of data.
For example, different groups with a stake in FAFSA completion coordinated visits to the schools, instead of duplicating efforts. The Michigan Department of Treasury also shared data with schools about which seniors had not completed the FAFSA, so schools could target individual students.
FAFSA completion, in which many organizations have an interest but none are in direct competition with each other, proved an ideal way to test out collective impact.
“There was no reason folks should be working against each other there,” says Armen Hratchian, vice president of educational systems at Excellent Schools Detroit, who led the FAFSA effort. When they looked at the success of the project, Hratchian says it was impossible to tease out who was responsible for what gains; instead, it was a collective victory that could be shared together. “Getting folks to believe you win and lose together at some level takes some time.”
Helping people come to a place of collaboration instead of competition takes a great deal of communication by the backbone organization and through sharing both the work and the glory.
“It trickles down from governance to the actual players out in the field every day,” says Denise Smith, vice president of early childhood education for ESD. “We see it over and over again – we are constantly affirming for our partners that you don’t lose your individual identity or the work that you’re doing. In coming to the table collectively we’re going to do something really great together.”
Sharing data, having a clear shared agenda and a sharply defined outcome is the key to success for Ready for School in the Holland-Zeeland area. Since forming the cross-sector group in 2008, they’ve bumped up the rates of children entering kindergarten prepared to succeed to 62 percent (after starting at only 43 percent) and are on track to meet their goal of 75 percent kindergarten readiness by 2015.
Aside from their track record, one of the things that gives them credibility is a data-driven, evidence-based approach, says director of development Colleen Hill. Research results are shared with the various sectors that have an effect on children’s readiness and make the case for involvement. For example, Ready for School medical director, Dr. Donna Lowry, connected two clinics in the community, where physicians knew the children they were seeing were not school ready, with Reach Out And Read, which provides books to young children. Now every child gets a book at their well-child visits to reinforce the importance of reading.
One of the keys to collective impact is the idea of a backbone organization that helps all the autonomous groups involved in an issue stay on track and work together. Hill says the ability to play that role is key to their success. “We’ve served as a convener,” she says. “We’re able to stay neutral and get people moving in right direction and help them find ways to collaborate.”
Of course education is not the only large issue communities face. Poverty, social justice and racial equity are huge challenges, not just locally but nationally. And collective impact can be useful in a variety of ways. Some, like the Prosperity Coalition, take a more macro approach, which is in tune with their status as an offshoot of the Michigan League for Public Policy.
Finding common ground across sectors led to early success for the Prosperity Coalition, which advocates for greater economic opportunity and racial equity within the state. Danielle Smith, coordinator of the Prosperity Coalition, tells a story about contacting Rob Power of the Small Business Association of Michigan during her first week on the job and explaining their mission. According to Smith, Power very politely said that the Michigan League for Public Policy (which started the Prosperity Coalition) tends to be on the opposite side of several issues from SBAM. “I agreed with him,” Smith says, “but I pointed out that if racial equity and economic opportunity are important for us to have, there is synergy, and we can find common ground and move from there.”
Ultimately SBAM came on board and has served as part of the coalition’s leadership council since.
Danielle Smith says of all their partners, “The more we work together, the more we find out how much synergy there is between organizations that helps enhance the work.”
As resources for social programs become ever more stretched, using those resources wisely becomes ever more important. Collective impact is both a response to that reality and a new way of operating within it. By having a backbone organization that shares resources, breaks through “silos” represented by different sectors, political affiliations and approaches, and constantly communicates about the status of the mission, program providers can focus more effectively on what they do well. 
For BC Pulse, a relatively new organization launched last year with the idea of bringing together organizations that serve families in the Battle Creek area, it’s important to not add to organizations’ already stretched resources, but instead share information and data in a way that helps them be more successful.
“How do we recognize their current realities and honor their time and their constraints, but show them how they can implement new strategies to impact families?” says Maria Drawhorn, co-executive director. “Some of our successes are about how we meet them where they are at instead of requiring them to do things differently and go to another meeting, but go to them with information that is actionable for them.”
A key to BC Pulse is looking at the intersection between different sectors and including families that are affected by policy decisions in that work, says Kathy Wilson, co-executive director. “What was missing was the resident engagement piece,” she says. “We didn’t just want to do ‘Collective Impact’ big C, big I. One thing we understand here is the value of engagement, and how do we merge the two. The intersection of all these things needs to come together if we’re going to support the community to make significant change.”
Collective impact can effectively move talk to action. While collaboration has long been an important value for nonprofit organizations, collective impact seeks to move brainstorming to movement toward solving social problems.
“Too often, people come together and have meaningful conversation and talk about problems; they might even meander on a solution, but actually working towards it rarely happens,” says Smith of Excellent Schools Detroit.
And that’s not because groups don’t know how to make change, it’s because attacking some of these big problems takes the work of more than just one group, says Drawhorn of BC Pulse.
“We have to work together and celebrate small wins,” she says, “but also know the end result and all be working toward the same result.”

Signup for Email Alerts
Signup for Email Alerts


Stuart Ray, Mindy Ysasi, Mike Kerkorian, Ellen Carpenter from Grand Rapids' Nonprofits

Jumping Ship: Former Corporate Leaders Tell All

Detroit Future Schools

Flipping the Script on Teacher-and-Textbook Instruction

Student Brian Palazzola with volunteer mentor David Tosh

Care, Concern and Consistency Get Youth Back on Track

View All People


Infancy to Innovation list

Infancy to Innovation

Engaging families of color in identifying problems and solutions

Verona Early Grade Reading Achievement

Verona Early Grade Reading Achievement Program

Improving K-2 reading



Mixing learning and fun
View All Programs

Bright Ideas


Youth Decide Where Grant Dollars are Spent

For Grand Rapids students who serve as trustees-in-training on the GRCF Youth Grant Committee, giving back to the community goes hand in hand with empowering students to succeed. 

Superior Watershed foundation youth program

U.P. Youth Help Conserve Great Lakes

K-12 students are taking part in a monarch butterfly project, while 16-24 year olds have been working in the Great Lakes Conservation Corps for years. Both are initiatives through the Superior Watershed Partnership to connect youth with their environment.


At Arts in Motion Studio, Art is the Equalizer

Arts in Motion Studio in Grand Rapids provides the young and young at heart a space to create, learn, and perform, serving budding creatives of all abilitiies with individualized instruction.
View All Bright Ideas