Collective Impact in St. Louis?

By: Richard Patton, Vision for Children at Risk

Last November, Vision for Children at Risk provided an Internet link to some key local stakeholders to an article in the Winter 2011 edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review titled “Collective Impact”.  Shared with some St. Louis area nonprofit organizations, funders, and civic leaders who are focused on broad-scale, strategic community action, the article stirred interest. Now, through the leadership of some forward looking local foundations, representatives of Strive Cincinnati — perhaps the leading collective impact initiative in the country — are coming to St. Louis on April 7-8 to discuss the overall strategy and the workings of the Strive initiatives in Cincinnati and other cities.  Sessions will be held that involve local funders, nonprofits and civic leaders.

Collective impact is defined by the authors of the SSIR article, John Kania and Mark Kramer, as “the commitment of a group of important actors from different sectors to a common agenda for solving a specific social problem.”  In a recent New York Times op-ed shared by Mary McMurtrey at the Gateway Center for Giving, David Bornstein described collective impact as “a disciplined effort to bring together dozens or even hundreds of organizations in a city (or field) to establish a common vision, adopt a shared set of measurable goals and pursue evidenced-based actions that reinforce one another’s work and further their goals.“ Dozens of cities have embarked on various types of collective impact initiatives addressing different problems and needs.

An obvious question that arises is whether St. Louis – with a handsome complement of problems and needs – can benefit from the use of a collective impact approach.  This week’s visit by the Strive representatives should provide some key stakeholders in the St. Louis region with an opportunity to begin exploration of that question.

St. Louis would not be at the front of the pack in employing the collective impact model, but there still is time for us to get in the hunt.  Many cities with which St. Louis compares and competes – Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Newark and Minneapolis-St. Paul – are employing a collective impact approach through the Living Cities initiative.  With the assistance of Strive Cincinnati, collective impact efforts have been initiated in Portland (Oregon), Houston, Syracuse, San Francisco, and Richmond.  The collective impact approach also is at the heart of the Promise Neighborhoods Program of the U. S. Department of Education.

The authors of the SSIR Collective Impact article have identified five conditions required for a successful collective impact initiative:

  • Common agenda
  • Shared measurement
  • Mutually reinforcing activities
  • Continuous communication
  • Backbone support organization

Thinking about the use of collective impact strategies in St. Louis will require that we start by examining the capacity of the region to establish those five conditions.  Historically, the ability to establish a common community agenda and mount and sustain mutually reinforcing civic activities has proven elusive in the local setting.  It also means that St. Louis will have to look at the hard realities of securing the funding to support any local collective impact efforts.  The authors of the SSRI article state bluntly that, “Funding collective impact initiatives costs money . . .”   The track record in St. Louis reflects a strong civic predilection for funding direct services and a disinclination to support the intermediary functions and infrastructure required for strategic community action.

St. Louis has not been without local civic undertakings that employ an approach similar to collective impact, but it has proven difficult for them to establish or sustain the five conditions that facilitate success.  Particularly challenging in the St. Louis setting is the ability to secure funding for efforts to build strategic civic capacity, as opposed to funding direct services.  Kania and Kramer acknowledge a similar problem in Cincinnati observing that, “As successful as Strive has been, it has struggled to raise money, confronting funders reluctance to pay for infrastructure and preference for short-term solutions.”

A common focus of collective impact efforts has been on children’s issues and “cradle to career” educational initiatives with a focus on human capital development.  There are a variety of such efforts in the St. Louis region that may be able to increase effectiveness by adopting or reinforcing a collective impact approach.  Included among those initiatives are:

The collective impact model offers a proven tool that has been used effectively elsewhere for advancing strategic community initiatives, but broad civic support is required. Indeed the SSRI article observes, “Funders must help create and sustain the collective process, measurement reporting systems, and community leadership that enables cross-sector coalitions to arrive and thrive.”  Foundation leadership is at the heart of successful efforts.

The real promise for St. Louis in use of the collective impact approach may lie, however, beyond the enhancement of existing individual initiatives.  As a region seriously impaired by governmental fragmentation, organizational segmentation and social stratification, St. Louis is in what might fairly be characterized as desperate need of finding an effective means of conducting civic business.  Collective impact may offer a strategy for addressing fundamental problems in this region related to racial disparities, slow population growth and economic stagnation.  It may be a tool for halting civic decline, spurring economic development and advancing an improved quality of community life.

For more information on the concept of collective impact, see the following:

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