Accelerating social change through collective impact

The term ‘Collective Impact’ has become a buzzword in the social sector both globally and in India. Collective Impact is the commitment of a group of actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problems, using a structured form of collaboration. Given the early signs of success and the potential social impact it can enable, Collective Impact has been hailed as an exciting model for tackling complex social problems involving multiple stakeholders.

An early example of such a collaboration is Strive Partnership’s educational initiative in Cincinnati that aimed to improve the educational outcomes of children. The Partnership focused on developing a community-wide strategy for a shared set of outcomes that spanned a young person’s life from “cradle to career.” The work was built around four foundational pillars: a shared community vision, evidence based decision-making, collaborative action and investment and sustainability. At the core of the model was the intense use of data at all stages of a young person’s development to measure progress. Collaborative action networks of practitioners involved in a similar stage of a child’s development were also created to ensure there was progress in each outcome. Within the first six years, 89% of the outcome indicators showed improvement with 8th grade math scores increasing by 31%.[1]

In order to understand and replicate such models in the Indian context it is important to ask some pertinent questions. Can any partnership model be a ‘Collective Impact’ model? Why is it relevant to companies in India? And what are the key challenges that stakeholders and companies specifically may face while taking such an approach?


What distinguishes Collective Impact from other types of collaborative models?

Collective Impact has a very specific framework. The Collective Impact model for social change was articulated by John Kania and Mark Kramer of FSG in 2011 (inspired by the Cincinnati partnership) and is differentiated from other collaborative models through essentially five principles or conditions:

collective impact B1Why is Collective Impact relevant to companies at this juncture?

Collective impact models can have significant wide-scale impact on complex social issues which require multiple interventions at different levels. Companies can come together to support different aspects that contribute to a particular social problem, thereby tackling multiple causes under a single intervention and accelerating on-ground impact.

The Companies Act 2013 also provides an opportunity for companies to engage with Collective Impact models as the law has nudged many companies to look at CSR through a strategic lens, emphasizing efficiency, monitoring and evaluation and scale. Furthermore, companies from the FMCG sector could leverage their core business competencies and companies in the mining and oil & gas sectors could focus on the holistic development of communities around their facilities.collective impactB2

However, a majority of companies do not have the resources to comprehensively tackle a social problem or the wherewithal to scale their programs to a national level. A Collective Impact model can help address these gaps.

A Collective Impact model would enable multiple companies coming together to address a social issue, based on their interests, resources, stakeholder needs and core competencies. As a model, it offers companies and other enablers such as foundations and philanthropists, an opportunity to target complex issues and achieve social impact that goes beyond their individual resources. (See Box 2)

As a result of the overwhelming interest in WASH partially due to the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and the considerable challenge and ambitious targets, Samhita developed a Collective Impact approach to implement Water, Hygiene and Sanitation (WASH) programs in schools:

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In the above case, each partner brings to the table a unique set of competencies. The engineering company has a pool of employees who understand the technical aspects of construction; whereas the FMCG company has products it can leverage; the Government facilitates the access to schools and the NGOs are responsible for the implementation of activities on-ground. The combined effort is measured by one overarching outcome – a reduction in open defecation, though each stakeholder also defines individual metrics.

Road map to Collective Impact

  • Strengthen the backbone: A strong backbone organization is the pivot to any Collective Impact initiative. It functions as a program manager and a facilitator. While some argue that investment in a backbone organization can lead to a higher project cost overall, having an efficient and effective backbone is essential to coordinate, organize and manage different partners and activities in a project’s life cycle. (See Box 3 for some factors to keep in mind when selecting a backbone organization)


  • Involve the government – In a country like India, the success of large-scale, high-impact projects is highly dependent on strong support from relevant government agencies. Government support is critical to ensure that all stakeholders take the program seriously. Government ownership of the project will also allow for temporary adjustments to rules and guidelines that may be vital to the success of the project, such as permitting teachers in government schools to take time out for training on health and hygiene education by external agencies.


  • Establish a collaborative culture – The NGO space in India is highly competitive with organizations constantly in competition with each other to establish their track record in a battle for funds and grants. Similarly, different companies have different agendas, priorities and stakeholder requirements. Bringing together organizations with different values, philosophies and working styles is a daunting task. It is necessary to be mindful of competition between funders while onboarding partners. The model usually would entail companies working in different industries with clearly delineated roles to avoid overlapping functions.


  • Give the project an identity and a brand – This will help to rally all partners around a common call to action, communicate the message that the project is more than sum of its parts and help to reduce conflicts between the various funders and implementation partners in terms of positioning, branding etc.


  • Be flexible – Unlike other projects and partnerships, the processes and pathways under collective impact are constantly evolving. Each initiative will involve adhering to the five guiding principles in varying degrees based on the complexity of the problem and the roles of the partners.


  • Allow for a longer gestation periodGiven the sheer number of partners involved in Collective Impact, fostering consensus in decision-making is a lengthy process that requires a longer gestation period. Projects with very tight deadlines or short duration may not allow for the patient capital and flexibility required for such projects. Ensuring that all partners are willing to maintain that long-term vision can also pose a significant challenge for the sustainability of the program.


  • Agree on common impact metrics While in principle a common agenda should align well to a common metric for outcomes, the reality of agreeing on common measurement is complex. For example, in the WASH illustration above, while the partners may agree in principle with the goal of reducing open defecation, the way each partner contributes to it is different – building toilets, running IEC campaigns, distributing products, training teachers etc. – and hence the way each may perceive their success and impact may be different. Claiming collective credit for successes or taking collective blame for failures, without singling out a partner is central to the Collective Impact approach.


  • Focus on sustainability – Collective impact projects are typically aimed at addressing systemic issues in society, and hence tend to be long-term projects implemented in different phases. Given the complexity of the problems they target, determining what are realistic impact levels and the time frame for achieving this impact can be a challenge.



The Collective Impact movement in India is very much in a nascent stage. Companies now have an opportunity to lead the way in adopting this approach. However, implementing this model requires significant commitment from stakeholders to challenge the status quo. It is important for all stakeholders to understand that switching to a Collective Impact approach requires a fundamental shift in mindset from simply achieving short-term successes to investing financial and other resources in a long-term effort to drive systemic change.

– Anushree Parekh, Poorvaja Prakash, Pavithra Mohanraj