If you have been working in the non-profit sector for more than a couple of years, you have probably heard the parable about the starfish on the beach:  A pair of colleagues is walking along a beach that is littered with thousands of stranded starfish, gasping for water.  One of the colleagues is shocked into immobility; the other one, as they stroll, reaches down and picks up one starfish at a time and casts it back into the sea.  “Why are you doing that?” asks the despairing one.  “It doesn’t make any difference in the long run.”  “Well,” says the optimist, reaching for another starfish, “it makes a big difference for this one.” 

This parable is typically told during conference keynotes to boost the spirits of non-profit employees who have peered up over the edge of their trench and taken in the full scope of the problem they’ve chosen to tackle.  “Every little bit helps,” the parable says.  “Every life matters.  It is OK to count your victories in single digits.  Your impact ripples outward.” 

All of these assurances are valid.  But so is the perception that many of the vast social problems identified by non-profits require much more sophisticated solutions than non-profits working in isolation, or even in small collaborative groups, can provide.  Making a durable difference in complex social problems like income and educational inequality, world hunger and thirst, child and spousal maltreatment, and others requires a coordinated systemic approach involving non-profits, governments, businesses, foundations, and the public. 

John Kania and Mark Kramer, co-founders of the non-profit consulting group, FSG, call the result of such collaboration “collective impact.” 

They know, and you know, that such collaboration is extremely difficult to achieve.  (You might well be thinking that just coordinating your internal operations might be a feat beyond your current capacities.  I can help with that.)  But Kania and Kramer observe that complex coordination to achieve collective impact “doesn’t happen often, not because it is impossible, but because it is so rarely attempted.”

Their seminal article on the subject, “Collective Impact,” was published in the Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) in Winter 2011.  Among other major points, it lays out the five conditions necessary for the success of collective impact efforts:  a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication, and backbone support organizations.

This article is a must-read for leaders in any sector who are driven to effect big change in complex social problems. The initial article leads to several more, including critical work on catalytic philanthropy. 

Another article, “Embracing Emergence:  How Collective Impact Addresses Complexity,” delves further into thinking about how lessons learned in the process of implementation can and should inform ongoing planning and evaluation. 

I am eager to hear your thoughts about FSG’s work on collective impact:  if you have direct experience with collective impact efforts, or are now fired up to explore the possibility, or want to defend the value of tossing starfish one at a time back into the sea, please be in touch.



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12/05/2015 12:35pm

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03/14/2016 11:58am

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05/14/2016 7:20am

Complex is controllable even employees have fewer reasons to miss work when they have choices between work and personal or family responsibilities.

06/03/2016 4:38am

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07/26/2016 11:52pm

Excellent read, I just passed this onto a colleague who was doing a little research on that. And he actually bought me lunch since I found it for him smile Thus let me rephrase that: Thanks for lunch!

07/31/2016 5:26am

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