Balancing the Call for Collective Impact With the Call to Invest in Scaling What Works

Feb 20, 2013 | Updated Apr 22, 2013

Over the past decade there has been a call for individual "social entrepreneurs" to create innovative programs that effectively address social problems in one community, and then "take them to scale," replicating the approach in many communities for maximum impact. Foundations endorsed this approach, and the Obama administration also supported it with funding streams in various agencies for innovation.

In the past year a new call has emerged from respected sources for community-based collaborations among many local partners to create "Collective Impact" that will diminish poverty and increase opportunity at the local level. The idea is that leaders from all relevant public and private systems and community residents will together figure out how to influence outcomes for particular population groups using the resources of all the systems and entities they represent throughout the community. A "backbone organization" will be the coordinator of this effort. Together they will increase high school graduation rates by 10 percent, or increase employment rates for out-of-school youth by 10 percent, or diminish recidivism and crime by 10 percent, or all of the above, or achieve other goals. New funding streams are being created to support this approach.

In the process of embracing "collective impact," some of its advocates have seemed to de-value what the Stanford Social Innovation Review disdainfully called "isolated impact:" i.e., programs that make a difference for specific individuals but do not change the situation for a whole target population in a community.

I am writing this blog to call for balancing these two concepts. Both are absolutely essential. Both will benefit from each other's success. The choice is not to do one or the other. The actual solution is to do both, simultaneously: expand the programs that work, and support local collaboration toward achieving desired ends. Local collaborations can ensure that the successful programs reach their communities, and the programs that work can benefit from the new context created by the collaboration and can contribute key knowledge.

The risk of focusing our attention on "Collective Impact" is that we will imagine that this collaborative process will substitute for robust investment in programs that work. I sometimes think that advocates for collective impact at the local level have given up on calling for increased investment. Additional investment, beyond support of a collaborative process, will be essential. We must not give up on demanding that our government use its resources to diminish poverty and extreme inequality by investing in programs that break the cycle of poverty for as many individuals as possible in communities everywhere.

We must both build local cross-system cross-agency collaboration among leaders who have the power to influence how services are delivered and resources used, and at the same time expand the resources. Expanding resources will allow those collaborations to do two things: 1) embrace the programs and innovations that do work, spreading them to the largest possible number of individuals; and 2) integrate into the existing failed systems the new principles and practices that successful programs demonstrate.

Collaboration to achieve collective impact will not succeed unless the collaborators learn from and utilize the programs that work. They need to expand access to those programs. They also need to reform existing systems based on what can be learned from successful programs.

Here is an example based on my 34 years of experience taking one social innovation to partial scale. In 1978 I started a program in East Harlem in the empty space between all existing failing systems. We deliberately started it outside the education, workforce training, and criminal justice systems because none of them were working and we didn't have the power to change them. We did have the power and some flexible resources to create something new, outside of bureaucratic control. Then, through a national collaborative effort involving many organizations and elected officials, we created a system to replicate this innovative program in hundreds of communities with government funding. It now operates in 273 neighborhoods in 45 states.

This program is called YouthBuild. It is a comprehensive full-time education, job training, personal counseling, community service, and leadership development program designed with and for low-income young people who left high school without a diploma. Because we didn't have the power to reform or coordinate all the systems, we built a mini-system that included all the elements that the young people needed, and we engaged the young people in designing it.

After YouthBuild had succeeded in 20 communities nationally with private and local public funds, Senator John Kerry led the process of getting it authorized in 1992 as a program comparable in law to Head Start and Peace Corps. A total of $1.3 billion in federal funding has flowed directly to local non-profit YouthBuild programs through a competitive process operating over 20 years. As a result, 120,000 YouthBuild students have produced 22,000 units of affordable housing in their communities while working toward their GED or high school diploma and rebuilding their own lives.

Despite now being funded directly from the federal government, all YouthBuild programs require extensive collaboration and partnerships locally. To succeed they must work with community development corporations, employers, unions, community colleges, four year colleges, probation officers, construction certification entities, drug rehab programs, workforce investment boards, and state commissions for national service. Many of them work closely with police, housing authorities, and local schools. This is not what is meant by collaboration for collective impact, but it needs to be understood that to succeed in the complex job of reconnecting out of school unemployed young adults, it takes a comprehensive effort that surrounds each individual with all of the resources s/he needs to succeed.

Another stage of this process is taking the successful principles that work in programs that start outside existing systems and integrate these principles back into reforming those systems. In YouthBuild that process has begun and deserves an article of its own.

Of course, other national programs have been replicated with consistency in many communities. Service and Conservation Corps, Year Up, Public Allies, ChalleNGe, AmeriCorps, City Year, and others, will benefit every community that is trying to achieve collective impact and therefore they all need to be expanded.

When a local collaboration for collective impact starts, one of its tasks will be to scan the field for all the models that work, and to bring all those models into their community at the appropriate scale. Another task will be to assess what is not working in their existing systems and what principles and practices need to be adopted to achieve success. Both of these steps will require investment from local, state, and federal funding sources.

Let us not back off the call for increased public investment just because there is a deficit. We will have different types of deficits in human capability and economic development if we fail to invest in our people and fail to rebuild the American dream through providing adequate systems of opportunity and responsibility for all. There is enough wealth in the United States, properly used, to re-create a society that generates opportunity for every child born.