Building Healthier Communities through Collective Impact

It doesn’t make sense to me. Our region and state abound with outstanding health care providers and employers, health agencies, nonprofits and education organizations, and myriad other health-focused advocates and stakeholders. Yet efforts to date haven’t added up to outstanding community health, as most recently shown in national research rating Missouri as the 11th most obese state. What’s missing?

This question keeps coming to mind as I learn more about the trend of collective impact initiatives, which seek to solve a specific social problem through collaborative, long-term initiatives that coordinate engagement across diverse sectors of society. In their recent Stanford Social Innovation Review article, FSG social impact consultants John Kania and Mark Kramer detail the approach and cite successes in areas such as reforming public education, restoring wetlands and preventing childhood obesity.

Their model has five conditions as prerequisites for creating collective impact in a community:

  • Creating a common agenda and understanding of the problem
  • Developing shared measurement systems
  • Conducting mutually reinforcing activities
  • Ensuring continuous communication between organizations
  • Creating a backbone support organization

At the Rome Group’s Philanthropic Landscape presentation last week, Gateway Center for Giving president Mary McMurtrey discussed with community leaders how their work relates to collective impact.  Panelists included representatives from Beyond Housing’s 24:1 Initiative, College Access Pipeline, St. Louis PetLover Coalition, Maternal, Child and Family Health Coalition, the Incarnate Word Foundation‘s Marketplace of Ideas initiative in North St. Louis, Regional Health Commission, and Great Rivers Greenway District.

The collective-impact approach is best suited for addressing complex social issues that Kania and Kramer define as adaptive problems:

“…. the answer is not known, and even if it were, no single entity has the resources or authority to bring about the necessary change. …Reaching an effective solution requires learning by the stakeholders involved in the problem, who must then change their own behavior in order to create a solution.”

When John Kania spoke at the Nonprofit Services Group’s 2011 Leadership Convening in June, he noted that collective impact is a significant shift from the paradigm that the U.S. social sector has operated on for the past 50 years. But it’s essential for generating large-scale social change in the political and economic climate ahead.  

Across both events, it was energizing to hear leaders’ visions, resilience and commitment to adapting while leading. I was delighted that the Philanthropic Landscape panelists dove into candid insights on backbone organization leadership and challenges that our region presents. They shared approaches to establishing credibility, from developing a neutral, mutual voice across coalition activities, to managing competition among members, to building trust with service recipients.  They explained the importance of keeping in direct contact with their program users, and sharing decision-making authority among community members, in order to gain commitment to making change happen together.

What initiatives or organizations do you see as leaders in making social change happen in St. Louis?

  • Mary

    I welcome the concept of the collective impact approach, which seems like the most intelligent and effective way to bring solutions to social problems in our region.  I’m especially interested in healthcare, where several oganizations are already working together to solve various issues.  Did the panel address how these existing coalitions can be strengthened and expanded?