Finding Common Ground: The Greatest Obstacle to Collective Impact (And A Solution)

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Collective Impact is a framework to tackle deeply-entrenched and complex social problems. It is an innovative and structured approach to making collaboration work across many sectors–government, business, philanthropy, non-profit organizations and citizens–to achieve significant and lasting social change.

Collective Impact is based on the belief that no single policy, government department, organization or program can solve the increasingly complex social problems we face as a society. The approach calls for multiple entities to align efforts toward a common goal.

Unlike collaboration or partnerships, Collective Impact initiatives have centralized infrastructure–or, a backbone organization–which helps ensure all connected are working in harmony.


There are five key elements to Collective Impact:

  • 1. All participants have a common agenda for change including a shared understanding of the problem and a joint approach to solving it through agreed-upon actions.
  • 2. Collecting data and measuring results consistently across all the participants ensures shared measurement for alignment and accountability.
  • 3. A plan of action that outlines and coordinates mutually reinforcing activities for each participant.
  • 4. Open and continuous communication is needed across the many players to build trust, assure mutual objectives, and create common motivation.
  • 5. A backbone organization to serve the entire initiative and coordinare the combined efforts.

The ability of Collective Impact efforts in making large-scale progress on urgent and complex problems is obvious. Like, when the Power Rangers combine to make the MegaZord & go whoop up on the villain du jour.

However, unlike the Power Rangers, our social problems don’t always have a clear villain. There isn’t a giant lizard that destroys society in our lives; we have things like mass shootings & poverty & crime & hardcore drug abuse &… the things that cause conflict are much more multifaceted than a tidy 30-minute Kung fu victory. (Although, I AM looking into a throat-punch delivery service… but that’s another day, another YouTube video)

The biggest obstacle we have to resolving our society’s biggest issues is our inability to agree on what the problems truly are. Example: when a guy drives a car into a crowd of people in New York, the Turd-In-Chief screams about travel bans, but says it’s not a gun issue when a guy opens fire on a church outside Floresville. The problems in both cases are anger, frustration, a rage that cannot be contained by norms or social conventions or even basic human decency.

People whose views are skewed in either direction, who don’t wish to think but desperately want answers, form all kinds of opinions about all these issues. They offer hard-line solutions that seem logical, yet remain wildly impractical(“Don’t allow assault rifles!” Hello, Did you pay attention in government? Also, private enterprise). And then there are people like Greg Abbott who offer pandering loads of horse manure , like the answer to mass shootings being to “work with God.” (Sounds good & sincere. Is meaningless, dog-whistle bullshit.)

Because collective impact requires bringing together key stakeholders to use common measurements to track progress toward a common goal, the key is exactly shat: having a common goal. And even more, that goal has to be specific. For example, “improving outcomes for childhood asthma” is ideal for collective impact, while “improving the general well-being for children” is too broad.

Paul Schmitz at the Huffington Post might say that society’s leaders are the lynchpin of Collective Impact success in creating sustainable solutions. And he may very well be correct. Without the guidance of the people who possess the public’s attention & the levers of power, even the most amazing solutions fall flat. Plus, government officials–whose roles are, supposedly, that of public servants–depend too much on polarization to find solutions that work. Pretty self-serving for society’s representatives.

However, aren’t they just a symptom of the larger illness?

Aren’t people self-serving with their votes? Haven’t people become reactionary and extreme, clinging to their POVs with white-knuckled fear? It makes sense that government has become the way it is. It makes sense that society’s problems have become convoluted and untenable under increasing dysfunction.

The best we can do is remember that we, as consumers, as voters, as the driving forces behind the way things run have influence.

The trick is using it.

Consciousness. Awareness. Attention. Proactivity. Curiosity. We have to use them. We have to remember that there is a bigger picture. We have to look for true solutions, not merely control or change for change’s sake, or a quick-fix bandage that won’t last through the next shower.


We have to commit to Openness–to see and be seen. We have to look for the opportunity in conflict, rather than perpetuating the drama. This is not how groups have worked before. This is the challenge.