Next Stage is a social innovation company, so of course we are big fans of Stanford Social Innovation Review (, which serves as a clearinghouse of social change efforts. We greatly recommend signing up for the free weekly newsletter, and if you are so inclined, get a subscription. There is no more thoughtful resource out there thinking ahead (and around the corner) on trying to solve the most challenging of social causes.

It got on my radar fairly early in my consulting career as the result of a groundbreaking article in 2011 on the concept of collective impact, “the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem.” It was a concept that really spoke to me.

Almost from the beginning of my social good journey, I have been drawn to the concept of collaboration. You only have to do this work for a short time to realize that most institutions function in silos of their own making. And yet, that is not how the world works. The people an organization aims to serve are complex and are surrounded by a number of influences and inputs. It always seemed to me that the solutions offered to create positive social outcomes should be similarly nuanced and overlapping.

Finding collective impact was like discovering the answer to a question that hadn’t yet been asked. I was immediately intrigued. 

Bumps Along the Road

Depending on who you ask, you will get varied feedback on the effectiveness of the collective impact model. Some, like myself, really believe in it as a model – what is on paper is logical and a big improvement over anything that came before it. But for those who have actually tried to implement it as a strategy, reviews are mixed.

Typical criticisms include the lack of funding to sustain the model, the difficulty in sustaining partner buy-in, the challenge of turnover in leadership, and the longitudinal nature of outcomes in a world that rewards near-term successes. They are all fair criticisms. Any collaborative effort is going to face similar challenges. 

While there are still devotees out there, we have witnessed a fair amount of abandoning the framework altogether when we have no real viable alternatives. We believe it is primarily a challenge of implementation. The model itself is a badly needed, metric-driven framework that can work if the right conditions are in place. 

Collective Impact Improved

Next Stage reframed its mission at the beginning of the year to focus on “building belonging at the intersection of social good.” We believe that the only way forward is together. To make the collective impact model work more effectively, we’d offer the following improvements:

Service Providers as Backbone Organizations – In another recent blog, we outline the idea of service providers as advocacy organizations, and that concept holds true here as well. Too often, collective impact is embedded in organizations designed for the expressed purpose of advancing collective impact. These “catalyst, conduit and convener” organizations are meant to be a clearinghouse for collaboration, where the mission is the collective impact effort itself.

The problem with that is one of trust. These are often organizations launched by funding sources, with new entrants to the community recruited as staff who lack local credibility to lead the efforts they are tasked with advancing. They are also disconnected with the frontlines of social good where the important learnings live (if this intrigues you, check out our webinar series on community voice).

We think a better model is to embed collaboration management within a service-providing organization. Funders would be shocked, thinking that this somehow distracts an organization from its core mission, but we disagree. Who better to lead a collaborative effort than an organization that is already trusted by other service providers and the people the collaborative aims to impact in the first place. Yes, nonprofits can chew bubble gum and walk at the same time. It just takes investment and professional development to accomplish, but is far more likely to be successful than inventing a new agency out of thin air.

Start (and Continue) with Social Cohesion – We truly love the primary tools of collective impact efforts – a common agenda, shared measurement systems, mutually reinforcing activities, continuous communication and, yes, backbone organizations. But we think there is a big missing piece – the building of trust.

Most collective impact efforts fall down not because of the lack of infrastructure (that’s in fact what we think the model does exceptionally well), but because of lack of buy-in by the important partners. Our company has been brought into collective impact efforts half-way through completion that have hit a wall, and that barrier is almost always a breakdown in buy-in.

One reason for this is that these efforts spend too little time building social cohesion with participating leaders. Much more than an ice-breaker at the start of each meeting, social cohesion is built over time and must be nurtured throughout. If we think of trust as a form of capital (trust capital), then we can measure it and use it as a metric alongside the other important measurements guiding collective impact. We think this is an area where new tools are needed that can support these aims. 

Invite the Broader Community – Another feature we think is underutilized in collective impact efforts is the use of large stakeholder groups. Continuous communication is one of the critical pillars of the model, but it is most often viewed as an insular effort. Engaging a larger audience creates opportunities for data capture that provide important insights and learnings for the collaborative effort.

So often, the branded collective impact effort is only known among insiders within a community’s social good sector. We think this is a missed opportunity. If we truly believe in community voice and “no decisions about us, without us” then including not only community based organizations but also the people a collaborative aims to serve is the only way to accomplish this. 

The building and sustaining of a large stakeholder group can serve as a needed, always-on focus group for the immediate testing of ideas surfaced by the collective impact effort. But to make that work, the community must understand the aims of the collective impact effort and feel truly a part of its success. 

Next Stage’s Cultivate Impact®

Next Stage has launched a digital collaboration management and community of practice platform called Cultivate Impact. Powered by our methodologies of social cohesion-building, the platform can serve collective impact efforts in realizing continuous communication aims that yield increased buy-in and trust.

In 2024, we are piloting the platform with a number of partners including grantmakers, collective impact initiatives and learning communities. If you’d like to learn more, get in touch