Apollo 10 Mission Control. Photo by NASA.
The energy behind collective action (referred to variably as Collective Impact, Collective Innovation, and Collective Change) is fundamentally rooted in the understanding that meaningful change is increasingly not in the hands of any single organisation. No single actor is able to bring about structural impact in terms of addressing life outcomes, health outcomes, alleviating poverty, or even creating new connected products and services. Whether seen from an interventional perspective or a political and organisational legitimacy perspective, the complex interdependencies at the heart of our largest challenges are not addressable by agents acting in isolation. It is increasingly recognised that impact at these scales requires us to build open, large, diverse, multi-sector coalitions committed to a shared mission, common accountability, allied political intent (small “p” politics), and change at a systems level. These open movements seek to work beyond individual agendas, missions, and activity to leverage our collective capacity for organised and coordinated agency but also to manage and moderate the “unintended aggregative consequences” of our siloed individual decisions.
When many citizens and organisations band together in pursuit of common objectives they generate new kinds of power, agency, and innovation.
Some see Collective Impact as nothing new — just partnerships rebadged and rebranded. We would argue that this misses the point. Collective Impact is not about partnerships between a handful of key institutions sitting in a closed board room but rather about a new architecture for movements of citizens and organisations numbering in the hundreds. Collective Impact is a fundamentally different social scaling theory that changes everything. Collective impact represents a different politics of change that transcends partnerships between a sample of stakeholders and looks to all-embracing movements.
Therefore, inevitably Collective Impact requires new models of planning, organising, and financing. While we continue to invent them, we have identified a few key ingredients:
1. An authentic invitation to a shared challenge
The core momentum behind mobilisation en masse comes from a genuine and authentic invitation to address a shared challenge that many of us face consistently. There is beauty and great potential in the energy generated by individually motivated participants joining forces.
2. A love for the outcome, not the attribution
The people this authentic invitation attracts are most often interested in the outcomes, the mission, and the higher purpose. They care less about being recognised for their individual contribution and measure their own success by the collective progress . Attaining the shared goal trumps any thought of individual status.
3. Open whiteboarding, open planning
The words “collaboration”, “co-design”, co-anything are too often thrown around these days. But truly unlocking the potential of collective wisdom starts with openly planning and whiteboarding the challenge. Asking people to share their thoughts and insights and collaboratively testing, prototyping, and learning engages participants with the process, giving them a sense of ownership, responsibility, and authorship of the shared narrative.
4. Invest in collective capacity and shared learning
Abundance is a core value for Collective Impact. Whether it is being generous with your time or contacts, growing the collective capability, or even imagining the possible requires an abundance mindset. That means understanding that ideas, agency, and impact grow richer and deeper the more widely they are shared. This moves beyond the idea of a sharing economy and towards an economy of collective abundance empowering moonshots — an economy where the more each gives the more we all have.
5. Many-to-many accountability
Accountability is too often thought of as a checking process, betraying an underlying power hierarchy tasked with ensuring that things progress as planned. A many-to-many model reframes accountability into a relational, reputational, and educational process. It retains the structure of a movement for change whilst adding the capacity to learn from the collective strategic agency and peer-to-peer interventions.
6. Mission goals
Shared goals are essential for social change. Collective Impact calls for measurable (even if by proxy) shared goals—be it the well-being of citizens, educational attainment, local economic multipliers, or the long-term GDP growth of the city.
Mission goals create the accountability framework for multiple organisations and institutions, allowing them to respect, align, collaborate, and hold each other mutually responsible. In addition, they provide the extrinsic framework to align internal metrics and incentives and to consciously organise supply chains to act as collective impact multipliers.
In order to be effective and structural shared goals in a data-driven age must be open, machine-readable, measurable, institutionally hardwired (embedded into the Articles of Incorporation), and socially and reputationally networked (part of an annual citizen reporting cycle).
7. “Brand” the mission, not your organisation
In a Collective Impact mindset the brand for the movement is not attached to the organisation but the shared mission. It is a #hashtag, not an @attribution. It is an open framework for enquiry, conversation, and contribution — not an asset.
8. Open data
Uniting multiple actors under the banner of a common mission removes the incentives to protect and conceal proprietary information. Collective Impact benefits from a shared data landscape, where all actors offer their collected data and intellectual property openly to the commons. This kind of data freedom upgrades the value of everyone’s metrics and predictive models, helping prevent the “unintended aggregative consequences” of dissociated activity. An open data landscape, interpreted with the help of emerging artificial intelligence techniques, can provide the evidence base for collective action.
9. New models of financing
Collective Impact also requires third generation Impact Investment models which build upon the ideas explored by Social Impact Bonds. They allow investing in the preventative economy whilst recognising the structural need to connect multi-actor efforts and steer collective investments for social change into collaborative efforts led by outcome-driven strategies.
These third generation investment models recognise that there are no silver bullet solutions for sustainable impact and therefore go beyond startup and intervention financing.
This new generation of impact investment recognises that the most challenging social issues (like poverty, social exclusion, inequality in health outcomes) and global challenges (such as ageing, climate change, welfare systems sustainability) are systemically interdependent. This class of “wicked challenges” cannot be addressed in isolation or by selecting single points of intervention. There is no single intervention or investment that can effectively address these complex and social issues. In response, the new financing models must drive synthetic value creation.
For instance, if we want to increase educational attainment, the question is not simply one of whether more funding should be allocated to public or to private schools. It is necessary to simultaneously work in multiple domains affecting education in the area.These might include investing in prenatal nutrition, establishing breakfast clubs, setting up reading clubs to mentor pupils, mums’ associations to support young mothers, youth circles to provide peer support, and developing new technology to facilitate communication between parents and teachers.
Or take healthy ageing in a neighbourhood. Rather than focusing on the quality of nursing homes or starting a “befriending service” to reduce loneliness, healthy ageing may depend on creating opportunities for intergenerational contact in schools and in the public realm; on reducing fear of falling through early morning snow clearing; on a support network to assist older people with household chores, repairs, and navigating the digital age; on new forms of collective housing or skills-sharing programmes; and on maintaining and reinventing affordable social gathering places like libraries and cafés.
Importantly, this also means that change can no longer be the responsibility or within the remit of a single actor, organisation, institution, or enterprise. In the example of ageing, the involvement of the snow-clearing company (whether public or private) is as important as that of the residential developer. Involving networks of energetic creative young people is as vital as involving schools.
This type of investment is can be thought of as funding movements for change. Another way to think of them is as structuring Impact Derivatives — contracts based on the performance of investment contracts — working together and virtuously for Collective Impact. Allied movements of actors on both the supply and demand side of innovation are required to address these sticky challenges.
10. New organisational infrastructures
While it is sexy to focus on the human part of the Collective Impact story (the relationship building, the love, the empathy, the collaboration) we need to recognise that Collective Impact is really an organisational theory. It is a platform for empowering hundreds of actors with a shared mission, powered by the near-zero marginal cost of digital administration. This needs us to fundamentally reimagine contracts, embracing smart contracting for its ability to openly and asynchronously enable agreements for massively multi-actor movements. Open contracting driven by realtime data can achieve this in a viable way, without introducing unmanageable overheads.