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Coalitions & Collective Impact

Since Kania & Kramer introduced the concept in 2011, collective impact has been adopted as an effective way to address complex social and environmental challenges. This structured way of achieving social change includes five conditions that together can take your coalition from common goals to uncommon results!

collective impact

  • It starts with a common agenda or coming together to collectively define the problem and create a shared vision to solve it.
  • It establishes shared measurement or agreeing to track progress in the same way, which allows for continuous improvement.
  • It fosters mutually reinforcing activities or coordinating collective efforts to maximize the end result.
  • It encourages continuous communication or building trust and relationships among all participants.
  • It has a strong backbone or an organization (like a coalition or its lead agency) that is dedicated to orchestrating the work of the group.

As backbone organizations, a nonprofit coalition or its lead agency should pursue six common activities to support and facilitate collective impact. Over the lifecycle of an initiative, they:

  1. Guide vision and strategy
  2. Support aligned activities
  3. Establish shared measurement practices
  4. Build public will
  5. Advance policy
  6. Mobilize funding

As a collective impact initiative launches and gets organized, the backbone organization is likely to prioritize guiding vision and strategy. Partners are encouraged to share a common understanding of the need and desired result and they increasingly align individual work with the group’s common agenda.

BackboneNext, they support aligned activities by communicating and coordinating partners’ activities toward common goals, and work collaboratively to develop new approaches.

As backbone organizations mature, they often shift focus to establish shared measurement practices on behalf of their partners and use data to adapt and refine their strategies.

As backbone organizations seek to expand their impact and build a stronger community presence, they are likely to increase focus on other key external activities.

  • They build public will by making community members more aware of the issues and empowered to take action.
  • They advance policy by making policymakers more aware and supportive of their policy agenda and enact policy changes that align with coalition goals.
  • They mobilize funding to support activities and encourage philanthropic and public funds to increasingly focus on coalition goals.

Over time, backbone organizations can expect these activities to lead to changes among partners, funders, policymakers, and community members which, in turn, lead to more effective systems and improved community outcomes. Individual partners simply cannot do the work of collective impact without backbone support. However, the way that each backbone organization approaches the role varies depending on their context.

Backbone leaders also must possess certain key characteristics that make them effective in the complex collective impact environment. They need to be:

  • Visionary in setting the agenda, knowing where to focus and driving the focus forward
  • Results-oriented in pushing the community to not just talking about change, but acting on it
  • Collaborative in building consensus and relationships with partners and making them feel important
  • Adaptive and focused in listening to ideas, but focusing in on doing what is needed to reach the end goal
  • Charismatic and influential in passionately communicating ideas that move others to action
  • Politic in understanding when to listen and to filter what is said in a politically savvy way.
  • Humble by being a servant leader first.


Any coalition or partnership worth its salt already has effective leaders who embody the above traits and has a common vision and agenda, employs shared measurement and mutually reinforcing activities and communicates consistently and regularly with its partners. However, if after reading this blog, you find yourself deficient in any of these areas, get going and make collective impact a top priority for your coalition!


The Collective Impact Forum. http://collectiveimpactforum.org/what-collective-impact

Kania, J. & Kramer, M. (2011). Collective impact. Stanford Social Innovation Review. Winter: 36-41. http://leveragingourstrengths.ca/reading/collective_impact.pdf

Turner, S., Merchant, K., Kania, J. & Martin, E. Understanding the value of backbone organizations in collective impact. Stanford Social Innovation Review. July 18, 1012. http://www.ssireview.org/blog/entry/understanding_the_value_of_backbone_organizations_in_collective_impact_2