Use the Collective Impact Model to Inspire Aligned Action

How do you transform an ecosystem into a movement for social change?

My work on Grand Challenges has taught me how difficult answering that question can be. Wicked problems are everywhere. Humans are natural problem solvers, but we rarely agree on how to begin to address an intractable, complex, emergent issue. 

When I learned about the Collective Impact model developed by John Kania and Mark Kramer in 2011, I found the skeleton key that unlocks the power to direct diverse energy toward a common goal. This model makes it possible for an organization to lead and implement an initiative where the major players are completely independent of each other. This is crucial to the success of Grand Challenges.

The Common Agenda: Engine of Change

The success of Collective Impact stems from the commitment of all collaborators to work together toward a Common Agenda. This is a shared vision, articulated with clear results measures. It often includes three components: an overarching goal, specific sub-goals, and key levers for advancing the work. The Common Agenda galvanizes support, encourages collaboration, and provides a framework for measuring progress. 

The Common Agenda emerges from the work of the Leadership Steering Team and the staff of the Backbone Organization.

The Leadership Steering Team is composed of those who have pledged their commitment to the Grand Challenge. These leaders develop the strategy, but their work doesn’t stop there. They seize opportunities and address challenges as they arise, making sure that all of the work comes to fruition. Participation on the team is typically at the CEO level.

The Backbone Organization provides the administrative functions that undergird the strategy and hold fast the vision for a Grand Challenge. The Backbone Organization convenes the Leadership Steering Team and coordinates activities and channels communication among the collaborators. If money is an issue, it provides tangible support to the fundraising working group. These are crucial roles, so let’s take a closer look.

For a Backbone Organization to manage a Grand Challenge, it requires its own dedicated staff, separate from the participating organizations. There must be obvious alignment between the mission of the Backbone Organization, its brand in the public sphere, and the framing of the Grand Challenge itself. Without that alignment, allies will not understand why this particular organization at this time is doing this work. Participation will suffer greatly.

For an example, consider the Inteleos Ultrasound Grand Challenge, which I facilitated. Who better than Inteleos, the premier certification organization for medical ultrasound practitioners, to take on the Grand Challenge of making sure everyone in the world who is using a medical ultrasound device knows what they are doing?

The types of organizations that take on the Backbone role vary widely in size and structure, but they have in common the ability to assign budget, staff, and other resources to support the Leadership Steering Team and the other working groups. Every collaborator must be invested in achieving the vision for social change and the plan of work to address it. I have learned through experience that different groups will be invested in the Common Agenda for different reasons. 

Members of the Backbone Organization, because of their deep involvement in all aspects of the Grand Challenge, have specialized knowledge of the initiative that includes all they learn from interacting with their partner organizations and activists. But that doesn’t mean they do the work. The tactical activities happen in working groups.

In my experience, four key working groups are necessary to support a Grand Challenge:

  1. Equity: Embedding equity practices in the Grand Challenges work is essential. This working group ensures the work of the Grand Challenge will achieve fairness and justice for groups and populations that suffer under structural constraints. This group maintains equity accountability as the work progresses.
  2. Fundraising Strategies: Finding resources to advance the Grand Challenge is key to sustainability. Some Grand Challenges go directly to their constituents who will benefit from the Common Agenda for funding. Others build brain trusts of funding experts who identify philanthropic sources and help partners to approach them. And still others rely on grants and traditional fundraising techniques.
  3. Metrics: This group grounds the work in data and context; it pursues answers to the question, “How will we know if we are succeeding?” This group recognizes the need for a shared measurement system across the ecosystem of collaborators and stakeholders.. The quality and credibility of data help all participants trust each other’s results. Metrics provide much-needed feedback to the Leadership Team steering the Grand Challenge.
  4. Communication and Outreach: This group holds responsibility for developing messaging to enroll new partners and reach different audiences such as donors, the general public, or members of a particular profession. They also devise methods of continuous communication to keep all parties abreast of progress, and design methods for reaching key stakeholders.
Collective Impact Model

Collective Impact’s Key Elements

John Kania and Mark Kramer’s research showed that successful Collective Impact initiatives typically have five conditions or key elements that, together, produce the deep alignment that leads to powerful results. The Common Agenda, that describes the future state all collaborators are invested in and the strategies for achieving it, is foundational. It is what gives direction to the other four elements:

  1. Backbone Organization: Committed and resourced to provide ongoing support to everyone pursuing the Common Agenda.
  2. Shared Measurement: Agreed-on ways to measure, evaluate, and report success.
  3. Mutually Reinforcing Activities: Synergistic planned actions by collaborating partners.
  4. Continuous Communication: Executed to  build trust, encourage ongoing learning, and bring to light when plans need to adapt to changing circumstances.

The Collective Impact Model can seem overwhelming until you see it in action, but it is a proven method for committed people to change society. Like Christina Economos’s Ten Key Elements for Social Change, Collective Impact inspires my approach to facilitating Grand Challenges.

Solving social problems is inherently SOCIAL–it happens in community. I’m looking for researchers, academicians, and those on the front lines who are battling overwhelming issues. The community will include leaders in all aspects of society: nonprofits, corporations, government agencies, independent agents, and thought leaders. If you’re into Grand Challenges or would like to be, visit my Medium account, where I am publishing on Grand Challenges. Let’s work together to address these sticky, systemic, complex, and wicked issues once and for all, for the sake of future generations of life on Earth.


Resource: The Collective Impact Forum

Collective Impact is part of the Group Learning pattern,  one of three patterns in the Upward Spiral model I have developed in my work as a Grand Challenge facilitator. The others are Touchstone Events and Group Action. You are welcome to study, adapt, and customize each to fit the nuances of the challenge you are facing. I will continue to publish articles about each of these topics.


A shared understanding of the problem and the vision for social change.
The organization that resources the leadership and administration of the Grand Challenge.
The group responsible for overseeing strategy, seizing opportunity, addressing challenges, resolving conflicts, and ensuring the work.

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