What is Collective Impact and how does it work?

That’s a question I’m often asked, and one I find challenging to answer (in a short paragraph...).



One voice becomes many

Broadly defined, Collective Impact is an approach to social challenges that are too complex for one organization to address on its own.

Through the Collective Impact process, multiple organizations work together to achieve big goals like feeding the hungry, increasing literacy and finding homes for the homeless.

One action sparks thousands of reactions

The results have been significant.  Vibrant Communities, one of Canada’s longest running Collective Impact projects, reports that it has engaged more than 3,000 organizations, generated more than 4,000 media stories, and improved access to income, food, shelter and transportation for more than 200,000 people.  

Smaller projects are making a big difference too. Collectives in Chicago, Calgary and Metro Vancouver have placed 6,000 public housing residents in new jobs, housed more than 3,300 formerly homeless people and are changing outcomes for youth in government care.

As a collective impact coach and community engagement specialist, I’ve been working with 50 community leaders and new immigrants to reduce the time it takes for new immigrants to socially and economically integrate into six Canadian communities. With a focus on increasing access to job-specific language training and employer readiness, the project helps address the critical skill shortage facing many BC communities.

A disciplined, high-performance approach to achieving large-scale social impact

Collective Impacts works in part because it is focused on a narrow and specific population outcome and an evidence-based theory of change – a road map to achieve the intended impact.  It supports its members to develop and maintain five key conditions:

  • A shared agenda
  • Mutually reinforcing activities
  • Shared measurements
  • Continuous communication
  • A backbone organization

From Intent to Action

I first became interested in Collective Impact when I was working on a resource project in northern BC.  We’d been contracted by a mining company to make sure community interests were taken into consideration at every stage of the project – from exploration through construction and decommissioning.

The company committed time, money and senior resources to working closely with local, regional and Aboriginal governments, community leaders, businesses, interest groups and citizens. We had a high-performing community liaison committee, a highly functional community leader’s committee and our cascading approach to community engagement reached right through to front line health care workers, emergency services staff, educators, seniors, youth and families. We designed and led innovative and meaningful engagement events and rigorously tracked and responded to every public comment received.

Most importantly, the president and CEO was often at the events, asking and answering questions and bringing life and credibility to the company’s promise to help build a healthy and prosperous community.

Local and regional decision makers representing government, education, businesses, environment, health and social well-being helped design the process and were actively engaged every step of the way. Their explicit strategy was to work collaboratively as a region, recognizing that their strength and influence came from aligned goals and actions. They were fiercely committed to working together to leverage their collective will to create jobs and training opportunities, to attract new, skilled workers and professionals, and to create positive social and economic outcomes for their region.

And still, they found that without a managed framework for moving forward, a commitment to collaboration was not enough.

I was introduced to Collective Impact at the time, and saw it as the tool they needed to coordinate their actions and achieve their collaborative intent.

Creating Mutual Benefits

Whether you call it shared value, win-win or social license, working together to create mutual benefits is what Collective Impact is all about.

For the immigration project, our research has shown that immigrants are an under-tapped resource in a region that wants to build vital and youthful communities. By escalating community and new immigrant readiness to work together, the collective hopes to help build healthy and prosperous communities that will benefit all citizens.  

Building Stronger, More Diverse Communities

I think I find it hard to explain Collective Impact because it is both simple and complex.  In a flow diagram or list of bullets, the elements provide a logical, common-sense approach to multi-sector collaboration. They are easy to talk about. In practice, building and maintaining a collective vision, voice and agenda is a complex and delicately balanced process.  It requires strong leadership, influential champions, an urgent issue, adequate resources and a communications and engagement strategy to build momentum and large-scale impact. Ultimately, the success rests on the people and the community involved. 

The goal of Collective Impact is to channel the passion, intelligence and expertise of the community into a collaborative framework that will drive and accelerate positive change. And while success is measured through population level outcomes, it has been my experience that it is the incremental shift in the way people work together and see the world that is the true measure of the seismic impact of a Collective Impact project.

Are you involved in a Collective Impact project, or would you like to be? We’d love to hear from you. Send us a note at info@jameslaurence.com.

Additional Collective Impact resources can be found here:

To learn more about James Laurence Group and the services we offer head to our Communications and Engagement services page.