Twelve Communities Achieving Collective Impact

Ian Faigley
March 15, 2012

“Collective impact”— bringing together multiple sectors in a community to more effectively achieve measurable results — is an idea whose time has come, and one that is playing out in new and exciting ways across the country.

A recent panel discussion convened by the Center for American Progress, Collective Impact: Moving the Needle on Our Nation’s Challenges, examined innovative collective impact efforts that have, using a buzz word drawn from seismology, “moved the needle” by achieving at least 10 percent progress on a community-wide metric.

The panelists included representatives from the White House Council for Community Solutions; Echoing Green, a nonprofit that funds socially innovative ideas; the IF Hummingbird Foundation; The Bridgespan Group, a consulting firm specializing in nonprofit strategy; the Strive Network in Cincinnati; and the United Way of Greater Milwaukee.

Shining the Spotlight

The White House Council for Community Solutions has been working to identify “needle-moving” efforts, develop resources and technical assistance to support communities and recommend policy changes as needed.

Check out:

Needle-Moving Community Collaboratives (White House Council, Bridgespan) for case studies of the 12 collaboratives.

It began when the Council learned about efforts in Cincinnati to create a cradle-to-career set of supports for young people, and measure results. Intrigued, the Council enlisted the Bridgespan Group to find other communities doing similar work. (The Forum for Youth Investment, the parent company of SparkAction, has been actively supporting the council and was consulted by Bridgespan.) 

These types of partnerships are not new; they go back to the Settlement House movement in the 1890s.  But “they are an idea whose time has come,” as Willa Seldon, a partner with Bridgespan, noted.

The problems facing America are too large and too complex for single organizations or individuals to solve. The status quo approach has not worked. Add to this the unprecedented mechanisms we now have for capturing, sharing and using data to see impact in real time and you’ve got powerful impetus for organizations and agencies to work together.

The Council identified 12 communities that have undertaken this collective impact work and have seen at least 10 percent progress on a community-wide indicator: Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Atlanta-East Lake, Herkimer County (N.Y.), Memphis, Milwaukee, Nashville, Orlando-Parramore, Philadelphia, San Joaquin Valley (Calif.) and San Jose. Nashville and Herkimer County have implemented the Forum’s Ready by 21 strategies.

These collaboratives differ in structure and primary focus, which cover issues such as teen pregnancy (Milwaukee), violent crime (Memphis) and poverty (Orlando- Parramore). Some are led by the mayor, others by community leaders; some launched to combat a crisis, while others are tackling a “slow burn” problem of metrics getting worse.

Yet all began by creating a shared vision and agenda, and all dedicated time to establishing effective leadership and governance. In addition, all of the successful collaboratives focused on making a major change, used shared data to set the agenda and maintain accountability, and engaged a wide range of stakeholders.

They also designated some resources specifically to staff and manage the partnership.

Common elements of success:

In addition to the 12 leading examples, the Council has also found more than 100 communities moving toward greater collective impact, and another 450 that are exploring these types of partnerships and approaches.

The Cincinnati Experience

In the mid-2000s, Cincinnati education leaders were witnessing a troubling trend: falling graduation rates, dwindling college completion rates and fewer employers finding the workforce they needed. 

There was no shortage of well-intentioned people and organizations, but efforts were siloed and unaligned.

To unite the community and tie education to economic development, Strive Partnership brought together higher education, the United Way of Cincinnati, the school superintendent and funders to conduct research and develop a common vision. The group created a “student roadmap for success,” outlining the key points in a young person’s life and identifying the supports and services needed during those times.

Graduation rates have risen 10 percent since 2003.

One key impact of the work has been “systems changes – making the dollars flow differently because of outcomes,“ according to Jeff Edmonson of Strive.


Outcomes like those achieved in Milwaukee and Cincinnati take five to 10 years to bear fruit.  But these efforts can and do work.

In 2005 and 2006, Milwaukee faced a crisis: the second worst teen pregnancy rate in the country. Pregnancy rates for black teens were five times that of whites, and a stunning 71 percent of babies born to teens were fathered by men over the age of 20. This issue connected with several others that Milwaukee was dealing with: poverty, crime and education.

Frustrated that there was little to show for the programs, money and energy being invested, the United Way of Greater Milwaukee convened a group to work on the issue. The group created a roadmap for change and an audacious goal: a 46 percent drop in teen pregnancies by 2015. The group launched a public awareness campaign, a collaborative fund, free clinics, educational opportunities and parent involvement programs. 

By 2010, the pregnancy rate dropped by 31 percent, putting the once-unthinkable 46 percent reduction within reach.

The work has faced challenges. Some funders and partners were uncomfortable with the ad campaign, and discussions of teen sexual activity and have withdrawn from the collaboration. The lessons, said Mary Lou Young, CEO of the United Way of Greater Milwaukee, include the need to set a goal that excites community efforts and stretches the limits, support all involved to stay focused on that goal, and engage a diverse group of stakeholders.

It’s important “to stick to the data and the mission while being respectful,” Young said. While this approach “lost us some stakeholders, we’ve gained more than we’ve lost.”

Funding Collective Impact

Collective impact efforts focus significant resources on process change and innovation, putting them generally outside the traditional approaches underwritten by foundations — but that can also be an advantage, as panelists noted.

Collective impact is “a thrilling new stage for philanthropy,” said Jill Iscol, president of the IF Hummingbird Foundation, who sees a role for private philanthropy as “the research and development arm of policy and government, able to take more risks to try out new ideas.”

Key to the success of this work, Iscol noted, is leadership development and training — ensuring the next group of foundation leaders understand the landscape and how they can play a part. 

Learn More

For more information on collective impact, or to start a similar effort in your community, check out:

Materials from the March 6 panel hosted by the Center for American Progress are available here. Watch a video of the full event below.

Ian Faigley is Senior Manager of Partnerships and Communications at the Forum for Youth Investment.

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